Michel Foucault is one of the most important figures in critical theory. His theories deal with the concepts of power, knowledge and discourse, and he has had a profound influence in post-structuralist, post-modernist, feminist, post-Marxist and post-colonial thought.
The following is an excerpt from Sara Mills’ popular book on Michel Foucault. She is Research Professor at Sheffield Hallam University. She has published on feminism, post-colonial theory and linguistics and is the author of Discourse, a highly successful volume in Routledge’s New Critical Idiom series.
And yes, as usual, this is just a ‘teaser’ or an ‘appetizer’ for you that would ‘tempt you’ into reading the wonderful book by Sara Mills. Happy Reading :-)
So here goes…
Power and Institutions
Foucault’s work is largely concerned with the relation between social structures and institutions and the individual.
Throughout his career, in works such as The History of Sexuality (1978), Power/Knowledge (1980), The Birth of the Clinic (1973) and Discipline and Punish (1977), he focused on the analysis of the effects 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 possess and that power is only concerned with oppressing and constraining. What his work tries to do is move thinking about power beyond this view of 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, Vol. I (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.
Foucault, unlike many earlier Marxist theorists, is less concerned with focusing on oppression, but rather in foregrounding resistance to power. Much of this work has provoked a critical debate among critical theorists and political theorists, as the exact mechanics of resistance to power relations is not necessarily clearly mapped out in Foucault’s accounts, but his work has, nevertheless, occasioned a very favourable response from a number of feminists and other critical theorists who have found in his work a way of thinking about the forms of power relations between men and women which do not fit neatly into the types of relations conventionally described within theorisations of power which tend to focus on the role of the State, ideology or patriarchy (Thornborrow 2002).
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 do not wish to do. Power is also often 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, arguing in The History of Sexuality, Vol. I (1978) that power is something which is performed, something more like a strategy than a possession.
Foucault puts it in the following way in Power/Knowledge: ‘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 netlike organisation . . . Individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application’ (Foucault 1980: 98). There are several important points to note here: first that power is conceptualised as a chain or as a net, that is a system of relations spread throughout the society, rather than simply as a set of relations between the oppressed and the oppressor. And, second, individuals should not be seen simply as the recipients of power, but as the ‘place’ where power is enacted and the place where it is resisted. Thus, his theorising of power forces us to reconceptualise not only power itself but also the role that individuals play in power relations – whether they are simply subjected to oppression or whether they actively play a role in the form of their relations with others and with institutions.
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 the government; in an interview entitled ‘Critical theory/intellectual theory’ he 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 play in family relations, or within an institution, or an administration’ (Foucault 1988c: 38). Because he is portraying power here as a major force in all relations within society, he seems to have been influenced by the work of Louis Althusser, his teacher at the École Normale, who focuses his analysis of power more on what he terms Ideological State Apparatuses (that is, the family, the Church, the educational system) rather than the Repressive State Apparatuses, (that is, the legal system, the army and the police) (Althusser 1984).
Foucault’s view of power is directly counter to the conventional Marxist or early feminist model of power which sees power simply as a form of oppression or repression, what Foucault terms the ‘repressive hypothesis’. Instead, he sees power as also at the same time productive, something which brings about forms of behaviour and events rather than simply curtailing freedom and constraining individuals.
Power and Resistance
In Volume I of The History of Sexuality, Foucault states that ‘where there is power there is resistance.’ This is an important and problematic statement for many reasons. It is productive in that it allows us to consider the relationship between those in struggles over power as not simply reducible to a master–slave relation, or an oppressor–victim relationship. In order for there to be a relation where power is exercised, there has to be someone who resists. Foucault goes so far as to argue that where there is no resistance it is not, in effect, a power relation.
Well, this is the book for you -
Mills, Sara. Michel Foucault. New York: Routledge Critical Thinkers. 2003. Print.