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An Overview of Foucault's Economy of Power Relations

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  • Category Life
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  • Topic Power
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Always Already Doomed, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learnt to Love Contradictions

Foucault’s ‘economy of power relations’ is inaugurated by considering the forms of resistance against power as its starting point. This is a move reminiscent of E. P. Thompson’s project in that it begins by thinking with the capacities of people to abide and/or resist a certain articulation of the subject. He articulates the subject as both the subject of control by the other and as the tied to its own identity by consciousness or self-knowledge. It is thus characteristic of the modern state to discipline through the molding of subjectivity to new forms and specific patterns. Disciplinary power maintains a certain prohibitive repository, i.e. there must be certain things the subject can’t do such as be insane, sexually deviant or own means of production, however, this is at once the condition for its productive capacity. For most importantly, this what power does best: put bodies to work, not only in the factory, but through the vast and localized web of societal interaction, the school, the prison, the asylum, the hospital and increasingly the drug recovery program. Power is at once totalizing and individualizing, for it molds the individual subject according to often dichotomous notions of the subject that serve as coordinates in the societal web of antagonistic/agonistic interactions.

In the Afterword titled The Subject and Power, Foucault posits that the crucial question of power is neither that of voluntary servitude nor that of slavery. These are both to a certain degrees relationships of constraint, varying from the structural to the explicitly physical. I get the sense here that formal freedoms are not merely projections behind a smoke screen, but rather they play a vital productive role. In Discipline and Punish we encounter the idea that the political investment of the body is a reciprocal affair. “[I]t is largely as a force of production that the body is invested with the relations of power and domination; but, on the other hand, its constitution as labor power is possible only if it is caught up in a system of subjection […] the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body (page 26).” This is how antagonism is agonistic, i.e. a catalyst for bodies to be put at work. It is actually quite close, if not equivalent, to Marx’s double notion of free labor. Free in the formal sense, in terms of its civic obligations, but also free in the negative sense, free of the means of production and of sustain life. This is what makes possible both a normalizing society and capitalism itself, for Marx it is the displacement of self-sustaining peasants that forms the primal moment of primitive accumulation, for Foucault it is that and more, it is the also the chief momentum of making a universalizing and normalizing society acceptable, what tears bodies from their reflexive ways of life and invests them into productive activity.

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Disciplinary power as articulated both through freedom and necessity is a ‘permanent provocation,’ hence the jumping point for its conceptualization must be from within the field of struggle itself. In being productive, power also is not static. It is shaped and reshaped within the very field of struggle; it is responsive and adaptive to resistance. Perhaps a lesson in history here in regard to the Soviet Union would be how the project was doomed to begin with: the deployment of state power cannot solve the contradictions upon which capitalism thrives, for power itself ravels in this state of contradiction. Power constitutes a field within which theory and praxis are already deeply enmeshed together. I believe a charitable and yet accurate reading of the Marxist corollary would be that Marx sought to formalize a praxis of resistance that culminated with the proletariat as the subject of history. The Foucauldian project, however micro actualized it may be reminds us that we must seek the out in new forms of radical subjectivity, rather than through the attempt to radicalize already existing subjectivities. æ


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