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.

2 thoughts on “Part I: Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault”

Comments are closed.