Re: Power in Foucault

On Thu, 3 Aug 1995, John Ransom wrote:

> 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

All right--

Very quickly and for the last time--I AM NOT SAYING THAT POWER IS ALWAYS
THE SAME THING. For Merleau-Ponty, from whom I borrow this thought of
the negative, negativity is not some all encompassing background against
which everything happens. Just as there are multiple and singular
beings, there are multiple and singular negativities-horizons.
Everything else in the post follows from there. This is not a weak
metaphysics or attribution of universality to the relation
Being-Nothingness/Power, but a means of examining the particular relation
of each power in its constitution of subjects (for example).

Thanks for your responses--they're helpful.



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