Part I: Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault

In his essay, “Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault,” Kevin Jon Heller argues against common misreadings of central notions in Foucault’s thought.  For example, many scholars claim that Foucault’s understanding of power-relations leaves us with a wholly passive subject, in effect a non-agent unable to resist oppressive cultural, political, economic and other impositions.   In order to counter these and related misinterpretations of Foucault, Heller engages in a detailed exposition of the following Foucauldian themes:  power and the exercise of power, intentionality, power-diagrams, the difference between tactics and strategies, the process of subjectification, resistance and freedom.Foucault

Heller begins by unpacking Foucault’s seemingly paradoxical statement that “power relations are both intentional and non-subjective” (79).  As Heller explains, many scholars have focused exclusively on the latter part of his statement and have failed to take seriously that Foucault acknowledges intentional, conscious actions on the part of subjects involved in various power relations.   Anthony Gidden, whose conclusion is shared by many of Foucault’s critics, claims that for Foucault Power is the real subject of history (80).  Interestingly, as Heller points out, the statements that follow Foucault’s aforementioned statement make clear that he does not see power as the real agent of history.  For example, Foucault says,

If in fact [power relations] are intelligible, this is not because they are the effect of another instance that “explains” them, but because they are imbued, through and through, with calculation:  there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims or objectives (History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, 94-95).

For Foucault, individuals can function as either subjects who exercise power or objects upon which power is exercised.

According to Heller, in Foucault’s genealogical accounts of disciplinary practices and bio-power as presented in Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, he provides numerous examples of subjects exercising intentionality to accomplish various aims and goals.  For instance, in Discipline and Punish, he explains how capitalists devised new surveillance techniques in response to the need to supervise an ever-growing labor force (DP, 174-75).  Likewise, Foucault describes how new, modern “economies” of punishment were developed.  In contrast to the ancient regime in which the exercise of power was centralized and explicitly linked to a personal monarch, the new economy of punishment created diffusive power networks, allowing the flow of power a more extensive reach as well as a more intensive impact upon the social body.  In The History of Sexuality, Foucault explains how in the 18th century sex gradually became a discourse and how this “led to the intentional transformation of pedagogical institutions”—transformations that extended even to the architectural design of dormitories, classrooms and classroom facilities (Heller, 82).   Given these and other similar examples, Heller states,

None of these 18th-century transformations—in factories and workshops, in the legal and police apparatuses, in military and naval hospitals, in educational institutions—can be understood without taking seriously the idea that power-relations change, for Foucault, as a result of the intentional exercise of power by specific, historically-situated individuals and groups.  Those transformations did not take place behind the backs of the capitalists, magistrates, police officers, architects, and educators whose interests they promoted; those individuals were the subjects of those transformations, not their passive objects.  Intentionality is not, for Foucault, simply an anachronistic humanist illusion (83).

Next, Heller addresses the question, what is power?   Foucault gives a helpful, multifaceted answer to this question in his essay, “Subject and Power.”  As he explains,

The exercise of power is not simply a relationship between partners, individual or collective; it is a way in which certain actions modify others.  Which is to say, of course, that something called Power, with or without a capital letter, which is assumed to exist universally in a concentrated or diffused form, does not exist.  Power exists only when it is put into action, […] In effect, what defines a relationship of power is that it is a mode of action which does not act directly and immediately on others.  Instead it acts upon their actions:  an action upon an action, on existing actions or on those which may arise in the present or the future. […]  A power relationship can only be articulated on the basis of two elements which are each indispensable if it is really to be a power relationship:  that “the other” (the one over whom power is exercised) be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts:  and that, faced with a relationship of power, a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up (788-789).

Heller summarizes Foucault’s notion of power as “transformative capacity, the ability of an individual to influence and modify the actions of other individuals in order to realize certain tactical goals” (83).  Power relationships are the condition for the possibility of change, whether personal or societal.  If the relationship is one of total domination or controlled by violence such that one side has no freedom and cannot act in any way upon the dominating partner—then it is no longer a power relationship.  Thus, for Foucault, power and resistance, as Heller discusses later, are correlative concepts.  Heller links the misreadings of Foucault’s understanding of power to the inability of scholars to “free themselves from the conceptual paradigms of conventional social theory (mainstream or Marxist), which has always equated power with ‘repression’” (83).  For Foucault, who simply follows the meaning of the French verb, pouvoir (to enable), from which the noun form is derived, power has a positive aspect and creates possibilities for change.  Of course, change can be for the better or the worse; however, Foucault’s use of the term should not be reduced only to the negative aspect.

Having explained what Foucault means by power, Heller then turns to the issue of how an individual exercises power.   All the various economic, political, institutional and other structures that constitute a particular society make possible the exercise of power.  As Heller notes, “Foucault’s term for the totality of these structurally-determined differentiations—what he normally calls the ‘mechanisms’ of power (DP, 28; SP, 786)—is the ‘diagram’ (DP, 28)” (85).  For Foucault, mechanisms of power and the exercise of power exist in a dialectical relationship.  “[T]he exercise of power continually transforms a diagram’s mechanisms of power, yet is only possible through the utilization of those same pre-existing mechanisms” (85).  As power is exercised by intentional subjects or as it operates through unintended consequences arising from the overlap and interplay of complex, dynamic mechanisms within the totality, the various mechanisms themselves which constitute a particular diagram are modified.  From the other side of the dialectical relation, social change and other transformations, which involve the exercise of power, presuppose the specific pre-existing networks or mechanisms.  With these things in view, we can better understand Foucault’s statement, “[e]very relationship of power puts into operation differentiations which are at the same time its conditions and its results” (“The Subject and Power,” 792).

In part II, I shall discuss further Foucault’s idea of a power-diagram, as well as, his distinction between tactics and strategies and how intentionality relates (or doesn’t relate) to each.

Frederick Douglass and the Master/Slave Dialectic

In Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, he describes his first six months with “master” Covey, a well-known “slave-breaker” to whom he had been sent due to his so-called “disciplinary” issues.  Douglass was about sixteen years old during his stay with Covey, and in spite of significant obstacles, had learned to read.  Though his literacy opened up new worlds for him and allowed him to express himself and even to know himself more profoundly, it also brought about a deep sense of loss—a realization of all that he could have been had he been a (white) freeman rather than a (black) slave.  In other words, Douglass’s literacy indeed produced in him a kind of freedom within the oppressive, racialized society in which he lived, but it wasn’t sufficient—after all under the white gaze, no matter how educated he became, he remained a mere thing, property, chattel.  The insufficiency of this “inner” freedom is seen in Douglass’s famous account of his fight with Covey.Frederick Douglass

When Douglass’s former owner, Thomas Auld, could no longer deal with Douglass, he sent him to Covey.  Douglass describes his time with Covey as follows:  “the first six months, of that year … scarce a week passed without his whipping me.  I was seldom free from a sore back” (p. 56).[1] He then recounts how Covey worked him day and night and in all weather conditions and how at last Covey’s “discipline” broke him.

I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me.  Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.  I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute! (p. 58).

Although Douglass had attained a level of freedom through literacy—an accomplishment that was itself an “argument” against the white hegemonic discourse which claimed that blacks were subhuman, incapable of “higher” rational reflection, and thus in need of (white) masters—and thus had within himself moved from an animal-like existence to a more human existence, he as an embodied being was still in bonds and subject to the (irrational) whims of  white society.  In fact, Douglass indicates in the passage above, that Covey’s “disciplinary regime” (i.e. torture and inhumane work routines) transformed him back into a beast-like existence.

After one particularly brutal and near-death beating at the hands of Covey, Douglass decides to flee.  He returns to his former owner, Mr. Auld, who rather mercilessly commands him to go back to Covey.  As Douglass’s “dark night of slavery” continues, he contemplates suicide, living in the woods until he eventually dies for lack of food etc., or returning to Covey.  At last he decides to go back to Covey’s plantation, knowing that a bloody beating awaits him.  As Douglass is climbing over a fence to enter Covey’s field, Covey runs out to meet him with whip in hand.  Douglass manages to escape again and hides in the woods where he meets another slave named Sandy.  He and Sandy discuss his situation, and Sandy convinces him that he must return to Covey’s house.  However, before Douglass departs, Sandy gives Douglass a root with supposed magical, protective powers.  Sandy claims that if Douglass carries this root on his ride side, Covey will not come near him.  Douglass is highly skeptical but takes the root to please Sandy.  Douglass heads out a second time, this time returning on Easter Sunday.  Once Douglass enters his master’s property, he passed Covey, who, as a good Southern “Christian” is on his way to church.  To Douglass’s surprise, Covey interacts positively with him, which makes Douglass think that there might be something to Sandy’s root.  However, Monday is a different story; with Monday, we’re back to business as usual.  While laboring that morning in a stable, Douglass catches sight of Covey approaching with a long rope in hand.  Covey tackles Douglass and attempts to bind him with the rope.  Rather than remain a docile slave, Douglass decides to resist and fights back.  “At this moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose” (p. 64).  Douglass’s response took Covey by surprise, and Douglass could see for the first time fear in Covey’s eyes.  The two struggled for over two hours until Covey finally gave up.

If we bring Douglass’s narrative (as a hermeneutical “tool”) into conversation with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, some rather interesting insights surface.  After Douglass’s act of physical resistance or more strongly put, his act of violence, Covey never again physically abuses Douglass.  Here contra Hegel’s account of the docile slave who cared more for his life than his freedom, the slave is willing to risk his life for freedom.  Douglass himself interpreted the fight with Covey as a decisive moment in his struggle for freedom.

The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave.  It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.  It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.  The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself.  He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery.  I felt as I never felt before.  It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.  My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.  I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me (p. 65).

Here it seems that something beyond intellectual freedom (i.e. literacy and what I’ve called “inner freedom”) was required for Douglass’s “resurrection.”  As an embodied, political being, Douglass’s experience of freedom was necessarily limited so long as Covey and the socio-political slavery apparatus had dominion over his body.  According to Douglass’s account, some kind of physical resistance or force was needed not only for his own sense of freedom but also so that Covey might recognize him as an Other with volitional and rational faculties capable of producing deliberate and purposeful acts of resistance.    (Though my knowledge of Marx is quite limited, I suppose that a Marxist would be delighted with this reading).  My final point is to highlight the fact that in Douglass’s narrative, the slave does not gain freedom or bring about a reversal in the master/slave relationship through his labor (The Marxist would not, however, find this point delightful). To the contrary, Douglass says that the excruciating labor he endured under Covey’s supervision crushed his spirit—“ I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” (p. 58).   Although acquiring skills through labor does not bring about a reversal in the master/slave relationship, the master’s identity is (as Hegel claims) dialectically related to the slave’s.  How so?  Covey chooses not turn Douglass in for a public “whipping.”  Douglass’s explanation for Covey’s seemingly inexplicable decision is that Covey’s reputation as a slave-breaker was on the line.  He failed to break Douglass, and to turn Douglass in would be to admit that failure and lose his reputation. In short, Douglass worked within the power mechanisms of an oppressive slave society, and his resistance proved successful on multiple counts.  Power relations, as Foucault emphasizes, are not merely oppressive.  Rather, when power relations obtain, genuine resistance is possible.


[1] Douglass Autobiographies, ed. by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York:  The Library of America, 1994.

Eschatological Developments Within the Pauline Corpus?

Does a study of the NT itself show that that the apostles unequivocally believed that Christ’s return was imminent in their lifetime?  Is it the case that as a result of this belief, the apostles and their early followers lived a radically devout life of prayer, contemplation etc. and likewise de-emphasized “worldly” (for lack of a better word) endeavors?  Although this interpretation has been at times accepted and promoted by the Church, I am not convinced that NT itself sustains such a position.    It seems to me that one could make a strong case for a development of the early Church’s view on eschatology within the Pauline letters themselves.Apostle Paul by Rublev

As current Pauline scholarship emphasizes, St. Paul’s eschatological orientation was rooted in his Jewish, Pharisaic past.  Christians were not the only ones who looked forward to the resurrection of the dead and a final judgment—the Pharisees did as well.  Their position was rooted in the OT, in God’s promise of a glorious future (e.g., 2 Sam 7, Isaiah). St. Paul, already operating within this Jewish eschatological, apocalyptic framework, reinterprets the schema in light of the Christ-event.  That is, with the death and resurrection of Christ—the key Christian eschatological event and new “hermeneutical lens”—the future age is in part brought into the present.  Put slightly differently, in the Christ-event and the experience of the Holy Spirit, God’s followers experience prolepticly the future age.  So the eschaton of Jewish expectation had already arrived, but it is arriving in two stages:  stage one is the Christ-event, the first coming, and the second coming is the second stage.  Hope then becomes the fundamental virtue connected with the Christian eschatological vision.  This hope is not a fleeting, sentimental hope, but a hope grounded in the reality of the Christ-event.  In short, St. Paul has transformed a traditional Jewish eschatological schema Christologically—the eschaton has become partially present now, and the gift of Spirit is God’s assurance of better things to come (2 Cor 5:5).

With this brief background in mind, I can return to my claim of development or a revised eschatological view within the NT, particularly in St. Paul (the undisputed letters) and other “Pauline” texts.  Most NT scholars today consider 1 Thessalonians to be the first of St. Paul’s epistles (c. 50-1 A.D.).  An interesting way to read the letter—not “the” way but a way—is to focus on the triad of theological virtues mentioned twice in the letter.  The triadic order in this letter, in contrast to, 1 Corinthians 13 where we have faith, hope and love, is faith, love and hope.  The last item in the list becomes thematic and is related to the specific epistolary occasion of the letter.  (For example, the Corinthians had all kinds of divisions within their community; they were puffed up with pride etc. and needed to be reminded about the importance of love).  The situation is quite different in 1 Thessalonians.  In this letter, hope is thematized and is closely related to eschatology, as eschatological themes permeate the letter.  As a pastor of a newly formed (mostly) Gentile flock, St. Paul wanted to communicate to this fledgling Christian community the importance of eschatology to the Christian life.

There are many examples from the epistle that I could cite to show that eschatology  is a major theme of the letter.  However, let me mention two very important passages.  First, 1 Thess 1:9-10, which reads:

For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming (NRSV).

Here we may infer that St. Paul was likely addressing a largely Gentile Christian audience, as he states that they “turned to God from idols.”  This, of course, would not apply to monotheistic Jews who had “converted,” as they already worshiped the true and living God, YHWH. Then St. Paul mentions the second coming (“to wait for his Son from heaven”) and the “wrath” to come—again, eschatological themes.  Scholars have postulated that verses 9-10 are perhaps a summary of what St. Paul preached when he first visited Thessalonica.  So he is reminding these new Gentile converts of what he taught them previously.  Since they did not have an eschatological framework (as the Jews did), they needed to be reminded of the significance of eschatology for Christian existence.

Second, we have 1 Thess 4:13-5:11, which is the eschatological “heart” of the letter.  Here St. Paul is addressing concerns of the local community.  Because some within their community have died, questions have arisen regarding the status of dead Christians.  Was there something wrong with them?  Are they second-class? Etc. These questions then naturally raise concerns about the parousia.  Perhaps this early group did in fact have an imminent expectation of the parousia.  If so, they were now unsure as to the status and meaning of fellow Christians who had died prior to the parousia. St. Paul has been made aware of their concerns and is responding to their questions in this letter.

The literary framing of the letter is by way of the aforementioned triadic inclusion of faith, love and hope (the first instance occurs at 1:3 and the final instance at 5:8).  Then if you turn to the middle, exhortation part of the letter, you find an incomplete triad at 3:6.  Here St. Paul encourages the Thessalonians regarding their faith and love, but hope is not mentioned.  Why?  The Thessalonians are struggling with this Christian virtue, and St. Paul as a pastor wants to encourage them.  He tells them specifically grieve, but don’t “grieve as others who have no hope.”  The resurrection and the coming parousia[1] are sources of Christian hope, and St. Paul wants them to draw from these sources and to encourage one another with them.

Here I enter into highly “problematic” territory, but philosophers tend to do this, so here I go!  The authorship of 2 Thessalonians, of course, is disputed.  There are, in my opinion, very good arguments on both sides.  Given that I am not a NT scholar etc. etc., my personal view regarding the authorship is open—perhaps it was St. Paul, or perhaps it was written by a later Pauline follower under the pseudonym, “Paul.”  Either way, what interests me is the development of the eschatological views presented in 2 Thessalonians.  Here, particularly in chapter two, “Paul” addresses concerns of false reports that “the Day of the Lord” has already occurred.  “Paul” denies that it has come and says that certain signs must happen prior to the end (2 Thess 2:2-9).  (How does one reconcile this claim with the statement in 1 Thess 5 that the day of the Lord will come like a “thief in the night?”).  Likewise, in 2 Thess “Paul” exhorts rather sternly those in the community who have stopped working (3:6-15).  Why have they stopped working and are now idle?  Presumably, because they believe that the end is near; thus, “furthering” their career is pointless.  There is, however, no clear indication in the text for that inference.  Nonetheless, given the eschatological themes linking 1 and 2 Thess, it is a plausible suggestion.  At any rate, it does appear that some kind of revision has taken place regarding the imminent return of Christ.  The parousia could still happen at any time (now only following certain “signs”), but a space has opened for the possibility that the event may occur in the distant future, a future beyond the life-span of the early Christians.

I’d really like to hear from my NT scholar friends and readers.  Please send your thoughts/comments!


[1] Regarding the parousia, Thessalonians seem to have many questions—questions that focus on orderings of end time events; see, for example, 4:14-15 where St. Paul’s response indicates that he was responding to some very specific questions.