Foucault on power

Shane Wiilcox asks:

A quick response (or perhaps a question) to John Ransom--

Does it make sense to say on the one hand that there is no
capital-P "Power", but only specific, situated power-relations,
and on the other to say that in all Foucault's works, which
involve the unravelling of the workings of power in those
situations, power is always the same thing? Under certain
circumstances I can see the value of asserting this--when one
within a particular relationship entirely in its favour (a
comparatively rare situation)--but generally, I think this is
somewhat misleading.

Interested in your response--


I answer:

Excellent comment! At a minimum, I must revise or re-explain what
I "meant." There is no capital-P "Power" in the sense of some
kind of *agent*. What, after all, do we mean by asking the
question: "Does Foucault believe there is some kind of capital-P
'Power'?" What does the capital-P represent, such that we want to
know if Foucault is or is not promoting such a version of power?
Well, it's like Hegel: When he wanted to indicate that his notion
of spirit was actually an agent, an actor of some kind, he
initial-capped spirit into "Spirit." (Of course, all the nouns
in Germans are initial-capped, but you get what I mean. Certainly
Hegel's English translators did.) So it seems the question we are
asking when we talk about this capital-P stuff is: does Foucault
think of power as some kind of overall explanatory principle, as
some kind of permanently identifiable force in history, in the
same way that Hegel understood his use of Spirit (*Geist*)? And I
think that the answer is "no."

[Marginal comment that might be skipped: Here is where we might
identify a difference between Nietzsche and Foucault. In
_Zarathustra_-- a book Foucault specifically says he did not like
(see Michael Mahen, _F's Nietzschean Genealogy: Truth, Power, and
the Subject_, Albany, SUNY Press, 1992, pp. 83-85)--the will to
power is metaphysicalized (sorry!) into the "eternal return."
Foucault wants nothing to do with this kind of backdoor

No doubt, Shane, you are right: power always exists. But this
power is not a capital P power. It's just power.

Karen Kolodenko also asks:

This is interesting and helpful except for one thing - I don't
get how there can be intentions without subjects.

I answer:

Here's what Foucault says--in summarized form--in _History of

Power, he says on 94, is exercised from innumerable points in
interplay of mobile relations. Relations of power not
superstructural, rather they have directly productive role.
Power comes from below. Power relations are both intentional and
non-subjective. If power relations are intelligible, this is not
because power relations are the effect of another instance that
explains them, but rather because they are imbued through and
through with calculation. No power is exercised without a series
of aims and objectives, but let us not look for the headquarters
that presides over its rationality. At the restricted level at
which they are inscribed, the tactics are quite explicit, but
then these become attached to one another, attracting and
propagating one another, but finding their base of support and
their condition elsewhere, and end up forming comprehensive
systems, 95. And yet it is often the case that no one is there
to have invented them. [end summary notes from Foucault]

When we look at it like this, the point is actually kind of
simple, isn't it? Take the example of the pathologization of
sexuality that Foucault describes in the same book. Sexologists
sought to get at the heart of the illnesses that were ravaging
the Victorian family by getting their patients to treat their
sexuality as the essential secret to be revealed through
confessional practices. The sexologists did this with a genuinely
clear conscience--that is, they were trying to help! They were
not agents of the state! But it turns out that the state--for its
own reasons--is also interested in illnesses that affect the
psychological, motivational state of its citizens. Sexolgoists
loaded down with data, diagnoses, and proposed cures were turned
to as "experts" in maintaining the health and stability of the
family and its members. The knowledge of the sexologists was in
this way increasingly valorized and institutionalized. The
resulting alliance between state institutions and the will-to-
knowledge of the sexologists is much more opportunist than it is
conspiratorial. This is why Foucault says that we should not look
for the headquarters that presides over the rationality of some
particular power formation. There are two reasons why we should
not do this: First, as historians, we will miss what's actually
going on if we enter into our investigations with assumptions of
a conspiratorial kind. Second, we will overestimate the strength
of our opponents and sink into apathy--a consequence that
Foucault was very interested in avoiding.

I've gone on *way* too long! My apologies to list colleagues.

John Ransom


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