foucault on power

On Thu, 14 Mar 1996, Richard Turner Clark wrote:

>I am a fourth year student with a question about Foucault. I am
>trying to come to a conclusion as to why Foucault was so
>interested in ower. Can anybody out there help me out? I am
>just beginning to see how magical his works are but am having
>trouble with the origins of his interest surrounding this topic.
> Thank you, Rich Clark

Mr. Clark,

I think one of the motivations behind Foucault's use of this word as a
theme was his desire to find some other rubric or paradigm through which
to elaborate oppositional possibilities. Quite simply, I think Foucault
saw a lot of problems with the practical effects and even simple
persuasive power of traditional left ways of schematizing social
dynamics. Instead of talking about the bourgeoisie or the state, Foucault
says he wants to talk about "power." In a way, this is kind of a joke.
One of F's problems with the terms "bourgeoisie" and "state" was that
these hypostastized--may as well say it, reified!--terms were such
inadequate, poorly designed, and only occasionally insightful
intellectual tools. So what does Foucault do? He hyper-hypostastizes the
whole thing by out-abstracting everyone with the move to "power." This
hyper-abstraction was designed to keep the label itself at arms distance,
as needing clarification *before* habitual assumptions could categorize
and file. Foucault's intent, I feel, was to move the discussion away from
the significance of the label--"power" being too general to permit
meaningful analysis--and towards the actual mechanics and strategies of
intersecting spheres of power.

But in fact this move failed. I wonder if Foucault knew there was a
fairly big literature on "power" in the United States? Did F know about
Steve Lukes' book? About Dahl? I wonder. For a very long time, in fact,
the label "power" and its companion "power/knowledge" distracted people
from actually reading F.

--John Ransom


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