Part II: Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault

In this post, I revisit (by way of Heller’s essay) Foucault’s articulation of a power-diagram and discuss the differences between tactics and strategies.  Heller provides a helpful explanation of Foucault’s seemingly paradoxical claim, “power relations are both intentional and non-subjective.”  First, Heller reminds us that a pre-existing power-diagram must be in place in order for power to be exercised.  With this in view, Heller adds,

While the decision to exercise power is always intentional, the mechanisms of power that individuals use to exercise power are inherently non-subjective, because they do not depend on the existence of those individuals for their own existence.  Power mechanisms, because they are structured and reproduced by a multiplicity of power-relations that are not reducible to the individuals who exercise them, are necessarily incapable of being controlled by any particular individual (“Power, Subjectification, and Resistance in Foucault,” 85).Michel Foucault

Because the complex interplay of power relations which form power mechanisms cannot be reduced to the individual subjects who exercise power through them, they in effect take on a life of their own.  In this sense, we are all caught in the power-diagram machine and no one individual (or group) can possibility control or direct the flow of power in a particular power-diagram.  This state of affairs, however, does not rule out the fact that some individuals and groups within a power-diagram do “control more of a diagram’s mechanisms of power than others.”  Nor is it the case that subjects, because they are “located” within the machine, are unable to execute intentional and volitional actions.  In light of their function and weight within a particular societal formation, certain groups do occupy more influential positions within the whole.[1] Thus, it is incorrect to label Foucault’s theory of power “pluralist.”  As Heller observes, “[p]ower may indeed be everywhere, but that does not mean power is equally distributed—it means only that absolute power (economic, political, cultural, etc.) is a structural and thus a practical impossibility” (86).  In short, Foucault claims that power is “the value-natural medium of social-change” (Heller, 87).  The exercise of power can of course be oppressive, but it can also be utilized for social reformation and to achieve other positive collective goals.

Non-subjectivity arises not only as a result of the irreducibility of the various mechanisms of power to the individuals within a society, but an “individual’s use of power can be non-subjective” as well due to the “inevitable disjunction between an action’s intention and its actual effect” (87).  For example, I may have a clear understand of my own intentions in connection with a particular action—supporting an international humanitarian group which aids the poor.  However, I have no control whatsoever over how this organization applies my gift and how their actions “on the ground” impact the community as a whole, as well as how the recipients’ perception of Western humanitarian endeavors are affected by the activities carried out by this particular organization.  In short, my intentional action—giving money to an organization to help the poor—bears within itself a number of potentially positive or negative unintentional social and political consequences.  According to Heller, Foucault uses the terms “tactics” and “strategies” to highlight whether or not an action is intentional.

“[T]actics” are the intentional actions carried out in determinate political contexts by individuals and groups; “strategies” are the unintentional—but institutionally and socially regularized—effects produced by the non-subjective articulation of different individual and group tactics.  Both tactics and strategies involve power, because both create social change; only strategies, however, involve non-subjective power (87-88).

So why do certain institutions whose unintentional effects are clearly out of sync with the original intentional aims continue to exist (e.g., the modern prison system)?  Foucault’s answer:  because certain groups within a particular diagram benefit (economically and otherwise) from the institution.


[1] See Foucault’s, “The Eye of Power,” p. 156.

4 thoughts on “Part II: Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault”

  1. “While the decision to exercise power is always intentional, the mechanisms of power that individuals use to exercise power are inherently non-subjective, because they do not depend on the existence of those individuals for their own existence.”

    This bit reminds me of Sarah Coakley’s work. In her view, the silence of contemplative prayer is a risky self-opening to God which nevertheless empowers the subject. Knowing she’s done substantial work on Foucault, I wonder if she draws on this idea for her view of contemplation? Christ working through us seems strangely close to this “non-subjective” and yet “intentional” working of power.

  2. Cynthia,

    I am actually not aware of extensive places where she interacts with Foucault explicitly, only that her work on contemplation is underwritten by Foucaultian ideas. The prologue to her Powers and Submissions is particularly helpful with this, and explains her relation to Foucault in some detail. Also helpful for getting a handle on her view of contemplation is “Is There a Future for Gender and Theology?” You can find it here: I hope that helps. Take care,


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