Re: Foucault for beginners

On Wed, 12 Mar 1997, Sharon M. wrote:

> On Wed, 12 Mar 1997, Ming the Merciless wrote:
> i'd say "beginner's
> > questions" would be a great thing for all of us to hear and think about
> > at this point . . . :>
> well, since you put it that way.... I am writing a critique of a
> series of articles on identity politics. One author dismisses Foucault
> (and feminist postmodern theory) on the grounds that Foucault does not
> allow the subject to exist as a locus of agency. In terms of my
> knowledge, I do not have a Foucauldian leg to stand on to argue this
> position, but intuitively (from list discussions I have read and
> enjoyed), I think this author is wrong. Can anyone help? Replying
> off-list is fine if you have the time, energy and inclination. Thanks in
> advance.
> Sharon M.
> Grad Student, Politics Dept.
> York University
> sh96az@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

It seems to me the assumption of the argument of the author you are
reviewing is flawed. Two wrong assumptions, really: (1) F is not trying to
argue that nothing like the "subject" exists. For him, the subject is not
non-existent, it is non-essential. An excellent example of this wrong
approach to Foucault, one that I imagine would be friendly to the point
your author is making, comes from Peter Dews very good book, _Logics of
Disintegration: Post-Structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical
Theory_ (London: Verso, 1987; ISBN: 0-86091-813-0). Dews quotes a
frequently cited line from _Power/Knowledge_ where Foucault argues that
"the individual is not to be conceived as a sort of elementary nucleus, a
primitive atom, a multiple and inert material on which power comes to
fasten or against which it happens to strike, and in so doing subudues or
crushes individuals. In fact, it is already one of the prime effects of
power that certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain
desires, come to be identified and constituted as individuals" (see _P/K_,
p. 98). Dews' comment is:

Yet, if the concept of power is to have any critical political
import, there must be *some* principle, force or entity which
power 'crushes' or 'subdues', and whose release from this
repression is considered desirable. A *purely* positive account
of power would no longer be an account of power at all, but simply
of the constitutive operation of social systems (_Logics_, p. 162)

Thus we *must* have something like a "subject" or essential human nature
that power represses in the name of which critical political stands can
justify or ground themselves.

But what Dews views as a logical consequence ("no repressed force means no
critical import") I see as a prejudice.

Power produces bodies, gestures, desires, etc. If critique can only work
when repression is present, and power instead of repressing us actually
produces us, the whole project of critique falls to the ground: that's
Dews' argument, and perhaps your author's, too.

But I don't think that argument is very persuasive. Power constitutes us.
That doesn't mean that power is able to permanently control the
consequences of that constitution. Let's say someone teaches us how to
write--perhaps the state in the form of a compulsory education system. The
state has its own "reasons of state" for making this a part of the
curriculum: it needs bureaucrats who can write. Power "constitutes"
generations upon generations of young people who can write. But this
constitution of individuals is clearly on some level an empowerment of
them as well.

That individuals are constituted does not mean they are mere cogs in a
machine. That *can* happen, but it is not an automatic consequence of the
operation of power vis-a-vis individuals.

The individual does not have to be repressed in order to make sense out of
oppositional activity. Indeed, opposition might very well arise out of the
different kinds of constitutions of indiviudals and groups. One quick
example: In "Power and Norm: Notes," in Michel Foucault: _Power, Truth,
Strategy_, eds. Meaghan Morris and Paul Patton (Sydney, Australia: Feral
Publications, 1979), p. 60, Foucault gives the example of a plan by
factory owners to encourage savings among workers. By promoting this as a
value, the owners hope to tie their workers down to one job, reducing
absenteeism and job-hopping. The workers learn their lesson--only "too
well," and go on to organize a strike fund with their savings. An
oppositional capacity was constituted into the workers--the factory owners
couldn't control all uses of the power-induced skill.

But I know I've gone on too long.


  • Re: Foucault for beginners
    • From: John Ransom
  • Re: Foucault for beginners
    • From: Sharon M.
  • Replies
    Foucault for beginners, Sharon M.
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