MICHEL FOUCAULT's understanding of power changes between his early work on institutions (Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, Discipline and Punish) and his later work on sexuality and governmentality. In the early work, Foucault sometimes gives a sense that power somehow inheres in institutions themselves rather than in the individuals that make those institutions function. Of course, what Foucault explores in those books is how the creation of modern disciplines, with their principles of order and control, tends to "disindividualize" power, making it seem as if power inheres in the prison, the school, the factory, and so on. The Panopticon (see previous module) becomes Foucault's model for the way other institutions function: the Panopticon "is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up" (Discipline 202). Indeed, Bentham's goal was to create an architectural idea that, ultimately, could function on its own: it did not matter who exactly operated the machine: "Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine: in the absence of the director, his family, his friends, his visitors, even his servants" (Discipline 202). The idea of discipline itself similarly functions as an abstraction of the idea of power from any individual: "'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" (Discipline 215). Bureaucracies, like disciplines, contribute to the process of disindividuation since they promote the facelessness of the bureaucrat ("I'm just doing my job"; "I'm just a cog in the machine") and tend to continue functioning even after major revolutions. (After the fall of Nazi Germany, for example, the general bureaucratic structure, and most of its workers, remained in place.)

The effect of this tendency to disindividualize power is the perception that power resides in the machine itself (the "panoptic machine"; the "technology" of power) rather than in its operator. For this reason, one can finish reading Foucault's Discipline and Punish with the paranoid feeling that we are powerless before such an effective and diffuse form of social control. Foucault makes clear in his later work, however, that power ultimately does inhere in individuals, including those that are surveilled or punished. It is true that contemporary forms of disciplinary organization allow ever larger number of people to be controlled by ever smaller numbers of "specialists"; however, as Foucault explains in "The Subject and Power," "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" (219). Foucault therefore makes clear that, in itself, power "is not a renunciation of freedom, a transference of rights, the power of each and all delegated to a few" (220). Indeed, power is not the same as violence because the opposite pole of violence "can only be passivity" (220). By contrast, "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" (220). Power always entails a set of actions performed upon another persons actions and reactions. Although violence may be a part of some power relationships, "In itself the exercise of power is not violence" (220); it is "always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action" (220).

Foucault therefore turns in his later work to the concept of "government" in order to explain how power functions:

Basically power is less a confrontation between two adversaries or the linking of one to the other than a question of government. This word must be allowed the very broad meaning which it had in the sixteenth century. "Government" did not refer only to political structures or to the management of states; rather it designated the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed: the government of children, of souls, of communities, of families, of the sick. It did not only cover the legitimately constituted forms of political or economic subjection, but also modes of action, more or less considered and calculated, which were destined to act upon the possibilities of action of other people. To govern, in this sense, is to structure the possible field of action of others. The relationship proper to power would not therefore be sought on the side of violence or of struggle, nor on that of voluntary linking (all of which can, at best, only be the instruments of power), but rather in the area of the singular mode of action, neither warlike nor juridical, which is government. (221)

The turn to this concept of "government" allowed Foucault to include a new element to his understanding of power: freedom. "Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free" (221), Foucault explains. Conversely, "slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains. (In this case it is a question of a physical relationship of constraint.)" (221). Indeed, recalcitrance thus becomes an integral part of the power relationship: "At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom" (221-22). Foucault thus provides us with a powerful model for thinking about how to fight oppression when one sees it: "the analysis, elaboration, and bringing into question of power relations and the 'agonism' between power relations and the intransitivity of freedom is a permanent political task inherent in all social existence" (223).


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Foucault: On Power." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/newhistoricism/modules/foucaultpower.html>.






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