Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a 20th century French philosopher and historian. Despite encountering various obstacles throughout early stages of his career, such as suffering from horrible bouts of depression, Foucault in time became recognised as one of France’s most notable intellectuals. His work included the writings of many influential books on some of the west’s most powerful institutions, such as medicine, prisons and religion, as well as groundbreaking works on more abstract theoretical issues of power, knowledge, sexuality and self hood.
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While the objects of Foucault’s studies seem to range rather widely, one thing which appears common is how they all tend to focus on how knowledge of human beings is inextricably connected to power. Despite his death in 1984, due to an aids-related illness, Michel Foucault today remains as one of the most influential and widely read social theorists in recent history.
The idea of power was a concept that permeated much of Foucault’s thinking. Throughout his career, in works such as History of Sexuality (1978), Power/Knowledge (1980), The Birth of the Clinic (1973) and Discipline & Punish (1977), Foucault focussed on the analysis of various institutions on groups of people and the role that those people play in affirming or resisting those effects. Central to this concern with institutions is his analysis of power. His work is very critical of the notion that power is something which a group of people or an institution possesses and that power is only concerned with oppressing and constraining.
What Foucault’s work tries to achieve is move thinking about power beyond this view power as repression of the powerless by the powerful to an examination of the way that power operates within everyday relations between people and institutions. Rather than simply viewing power in a negative way, as constraining and repressing, he argues, particularly in The History of Sexuality (1978) that even at their most constraining, oppressive measures are in fact productive, giving rise to new forms of behaviour rather than simply closing down or censoring certain forms of behaviour.
Power is often conceptualised as the capacity of powerful agents to realise their will over the will of powerless people, and the ability to force them to do things which they don’t want to do. Power can also be seen as a possession; something which is held onto by those in power and which those who are powerless try to wrest from their control. Foucault criticises this view, and in his book ‘The History of Sexuality argues that power is something which is performed, something more like a strategy more than simply just a possession. He goes on to claim how power should be seen as a verb rather than a noun. For example, something that does something, rather than something which is or something which can be held onto.
In his book Power & Knowledge (1980) Foucault exclaims how “power must be analysed as something which circulates or as something which only functions in the form of a chain… power is employed and exercised through a net-organisation… individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application.’ (Foucault 1980:98) From this, we can therefore note one of two things which can be of great importance surrounding Foucault’s idea of power, particularly on the subject of human identity itself.
Firstly, we can note that power is conceptualised as a chain or as a net, that is a system of relations that spread throughout the society, rather than simply a set of relations between the oppressed and the oppressor. Additionally, we can also assert that individuals should not be seen simply as the recipients of power, but rather as the ‘place’ where power is enacted and the place where power is resisted. Moreover over, his theorising of power forces us to re-conceptualise not only power itself but furthermore the role that individuals play in power relations. For example; whether the are simply subjected to oppression or whether they actively play a role in the form of their relations with others and other institutions.
Moreover, it is essential to Foucault that power is seen as something which has to be constantly performed, rather than being achieved. Indeed, he argues that power is a set of relations which are dispersed throughout society rather than being located within particular institutions such as the State or Government. In an interview entitled ‘Critical Theory/Intellectual Theory’ Foucault states, “I am not referring to power with a capital P, dominating and imposing its rationality upon the totality of the social body. In fact, there are power relations.
They are multiple; they have different forms, they can be in family relations, or within an institution or administration.” (Foucault 1988b:38) Here we see Foucault portray power as a major force in all relations within society. So much so, that perhaps he may have been inspired by the work of Louis Althusser (his teacher at the Ecole Normale). Althusser focussed his analysis of power more on what he terms Ideological State Apparatuses (the family, church and educational system) rather than Repressive State Apparatuses (the legal system, the army and the police force).
In another interview, this time entitled ‘Power & Sex’ Foucault argues that these power relations are not necessarily easy to observe in play; “the relations of power are amongst the best hidden things in the social body…our task is to identify what might be most hidden in the relations of power, to anchor them in economic infrastructures; to trace them not only in their governmental forms but also in the intro-governmental or para-governmental ones; to discover them in their material ways.”
Therefore, rather than simply locating power in a centralised impersonal institution such as the army or the police, like earlier Marxist Theorists had done, Foucault instead is interested in more local forms of power and the way that they are negotiated with by individuals or other agencies. This concern surrounding the materiality of power relations can be seen to have inspired many feminist theorists, in particular Judith Butler, who tried to develop models of the relation between gender and power without assuming that power is simply located in institutions who have tried to see gender identity as something that one performs in particular contexts, not something that one possesses. (Butler 1993; Silah 2002)
To conclude, Foucault rejected the view of a person having an inner and fixed essence that is the persons identity. He identified the self as being a continuing discourse in a shifting communication of oneself to others. Foucault also rejected common notions of people having some form implicit power, replacing this with the idea of power as a technique or action in which people engage. Therefore in doing so, Foucault highlights that power is exercised and not possessed. Foucault’s work is of interest to anyone looking to better understand and appreciate the subtle ways that power works in social lives, particularly with regards to how seemingly mundane practices and ideas structure our personal experiences and senesce of self.