Power in Foucault

Shane Wilcox writes:

I suspect I wasn't too clear in the phrasing of my comment/question. I was
agreeing with the principle that there is no capital-P Power as such, but
wondering whether the assertion that power (note the lowercase) is
nevertheless "always the same thing" in Foucault or anywhere else doesn't
call upon the possibility of an essential power transferable between
singular relationships. I don't think power exists--it has no Being of its
own, but at best is the negative horizon from which beings proceed towards
subjectivity and which necessitates that beings-becoming-subjects are
always-already in relation from the moment of their coming into the world.
This is possibly Foucault's unspoken metaphysics, but it's probably worth
pointing out that it's transcendent rather than being transcendental (to
employ Deleuze's distinction)--a phenomenology of power rather than an
ontology (to the extent that the two are separable).

I respond:

I like this idea that "power has no Being of its own but rather
acts as a negative horizon from which beings proceed towards
subjectivity." But the horizon is so very different in different
cases, at different historical moments, that I think we mislead
ourselves (at least as far as figuring out what F was after) more
than clarify things by saying that power is somehow always the
same thing. In other words, I guess there's *some* sense in which
this is true, but I would say that the sense in which it is true
is very weak, very general, very vague. That is, some kind of
power is certainly at work when Greek citizens suppressed their
physical desire for young men in order to lead a beautiful
existence, and some kind of power is at work when psychologists
come up with a new way of classifying the insane. But the cases
are so different that, to repeat, I think we head off in the
wrong direction trying to generalize and conceptualize on the
basis of such divergent events.

"Well then," you may be saying to yourself, "how do you explain
the fact that Foucault talked about power so much if it's such a
vague and misleading concept?" And my weak answer (but it is my
answer!) is: He did it for political reasons. That is, F knew (or
stumbled upon the fact) that talking about his work in terms of
"power" would have an excellent destabilizing effect on political
theory. Let me mention in this context an *excellent* article,
very brief, which is just along these lines: Ladelle McWhorter,
"Foucault's Analytics of Power," in _Crises in Continental
Philosophy_, eds. Arleen B. Dallery, Charles E. Scott (Albany:
SUNY Press, 1990), pp. 119-126.

Let me give an example of F's own varying uses of the term
"power." To talk about our particular age, F came up with the
term "power-knowledge." "Power-knowledge" is *not*, in my view, a
timeless feature of the operations of power. Power-knowledge is
specific to our age. Other ages will come which will not be
characterized by power-knowledge, other ages have existed that
were not characterized by power-knowledge. Now, if we tried to
come up with some conceptual, metaphysical understanding of the
term "power" before the revolution in power-knowledge occurred
(right around industrial and agricultural revolutions from
seventeenth century on), we would *miss* the particular
configuration that power took in our own age. And that's exactly
what sovereignty theorists did!

I want to respond to Reg's very interesting post, but that will
have to wait until tomorrow.

John Ransom
Dickinson College


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