Re:Foucault and Agency

As people have said, Foucault would not have asked a question such as
"Who acts ?" but would be concerned with how certain actors are
constituted 'historically'; how the multiplicitous power relations tend to
coalesce and clot at certain nodes. Asking the question "who acts" or
"who desires" seems to take too much for granted; it already assumes
the possibilitity of coherent, self-present subjects. With 'Power',
'intentionality without a subject', as he puts it in HS 1, Foucault is not
interesting with ascribing agency, with writing a history where 'agency'
is presumed as on of the building blocks of the'social sciences', but
instead with writing the history _of_ processes of 'subjectification' and
the accompanying notion of agency &c... As "Who acts" seems to ialso
ask "who {or what} causes", and Foucault is always concerned not to
write in terms of causalities (although I think he slips up at times; e.g. the
section in 'Governmentality' where he suggests that 'demographic
forces' result in the unblocking of sovereignities obstacle to
governmental rationalities).

To say that "multifarious power devices" are "societal forces" is then
also to presume too much; the question is how these power devices
come to constitute certain 'societal forces' discursively - for example "the
economy", or "the market" in neo-liberal economics, or "class" in Marxist
sociology. There is clearly a representational problem in dealing with
these 'multifarious power devices'. How does one write the genealogy
of social forces without at least strategically essentialising. i.e. - is it
possible to write history without causality or 'agency', when the very
epistemic 'structures' of historiography rely on such concepts ?

There always does have to be some sort of slippage i think. And
Foucault is almost explicit about this in the chapter on methodology in 'HS
I' where he writes of the nominalism of power. He implies that he is not
interested in what power 'is', (so there clearly can be no ontology of
desire), but uses the word as a convenient way to refer to lots of
different things/processes &c. (I forget the actual words he uses).

Spivak writes interestingly on this question of the nominalism of power in
her essay on Foucault and Derrida in the book 'Outside in the Teaching
Machine'. Here she critiques 'dogmatic' accounts which do tend to
ontologise power and agency, by urging the terms 'critical' usage, where
the potentially ontologising tendencies present within the project of
writing 'history' are always examined .

Jon Wilson


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