Foucault’s middle period is characterized by analyses of power: the structure of power within society and its distribution, and the way relations of power unfold. The problem is that Foucault seems to imply that all social phenomena, from education, law, policing, discipline, governance (the institutions that form society’s infrastructure), the apparatuses that engender and affect cultural and familial life, are reducible to an analysis of the relations of power operating within. Power is described as ubiquitous and embedded within the social fabric, so that there is no society without conflicts of power relations.
If this is the case, then the effects of power are inescapable and inexorable. This raises the question of what there is to be done with such extensive analyses of power, and whether or not such analyses are fruitful in practical terms. The goal of this critical assessment is to provide an elucidation of Foucault’s project of poweranalyses, of his conception of power and its symbiotic relationship with resistance, as found in his oeuvres.
Questions such as, ‘In what context, and manner, can analyses of powerrelations be grounded? , ‘What is Foucault’s definition of power? ‘, ‘How is this power wielded, and by whom? ‘, and ‘What are the positive and negative consequences of this power? ‘, ‘What role does resistance play in power-relations? ‘, will be subject to investigation. From this, it will be shown that Foucault’s position is ultimately one of disconcertion but incoherence, this being supplemented by corroborating evidence from secondary sources. Furthermore, the aim of Foucault’s project itself will be subject to critique in order to determine if there is any practical merit.
Foucault wishes to ground his analyses of power within both their historical and social contexts. Foucault’s concern is not simply a search for the panacea to modern societal woes, but of situating events within a proper but malleable (in the sense of not rigid or preconceived) historical framework. Foucault’s analyses combine examinations of society and social phenomena throughout Western history. Foucault identifies in these differing historical epochs what he terms ‘epistemes’, which are properly examined in his work The Order of Things.
For Foucault, these epistemes are characteristic of the epoch; it is the condition of possibility for discourse itself (at the time), for the knowledge, and thus truth, contained within such a discourse, and the direction in which retrospective historical analysis subsequently takes. It is important, however, to note that these epistemes do not fall into clear and distinct demarcations that match up with our typical historical framework. It is for this reason that Foucault is sometimes considered a structuralist historian, although Foucault would disagree with this critical label.
Structuralist historians, in performing historical analysis according to a set structure, usually of a progressive nature, tend to ignore outlying events, events that do not fit within this structure (discontinuity). This is in fact the opposite of what Foucault is intending to do; Foucault wishes to analyze these outstanding events as conflicts of power, thereby including them within the new structure. From this, it remains to sort through historical occurrences and reestablish their lines of connectivity.
Typically, historical analysis assumes the form of semiotics, of an examination of meanings, through the medium of language. Instead, Foucault posits that a model of war, or warlike domination, is more suitable. In an anti-typical-structuralist fashion, history has no inherent meaning, no ultimate Truth to be discovered within, and one should not look for such a meaning or attempt to order it within some preconceived superstructure, but it should be analyzed according to a model of war and warlike domination.
This is to broaden the scope of historical analysis by analyzing it according to the intertwined models of power-relations and war, while breaking away from rigid, preconceived and imposed historical structures. However, what is not exactly clear, is exactly who it is that is engaging in the war, and on what model this war is being fought (few vs. many, one vs. one, all vs. all, etc. ) Foucault’s Power When dealing with Foucault, what becomes tricky is narrowing down a definition of power that is both accessible and coherent, and in this regard secondary literature is useful.
It is important to note the fact that power is not some stagnant thing that has remained invariable throughout human history. Power itself is intangible, incorporeal, and insubstantial, but it is evident from the effects it has on bodies. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault attempts to elucidate what power is. Power is not an institution, a structure of society, nor a strength/capability with which the human race is endowed; power is instead the name of the phenomenon of the complex strategic relations that constitute a particular society.
This is to say that Foucault is not comfortable with reducing an explanation of power-relations to one group asserting dominance over another, subjecting the other to domination thereby ensuring subservience. Thus, the sovereignty of the state, the form of the law, and the appearance of a unity in domination are simply effects of power-relations and not inherent in power itself. These are not power proper, but the terminal configuration in which power has manifested.
What is most important to note, however, is that power becomes solidified when it dominates. Without somebody receiving the impact of force, there is no power. It is in this way that power is constituted first and foremost, and necessarily, in a relationship. Foucault writes, “Power’s condi-tion of possibility … is the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power, but the latter are always local and unstable. The “moving substrate of force relations” accounts for the ubiquitousness and omnipresence of power; it touches everywhere and comes from everything.
Foucault attempts to further this definition: It seems to me that power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless strug-gles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; … nd lastly, as the strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystalliza-tion is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies. It seems as if Foucault is desperately trying to describe power using the most neutral and objective, disembodied language possible, as in power without a specific subject, but his elucidation becomes incoherent once he begins to talk about organization, struggles and confrontation, strategies and general design.
All of these terms suggest the positing of at least one subject involved: organization, strategies and general design suggest that there is a subject making these evaluations after observing the phenomenon (yet these subjects must be living within the network to be able to observe it, as there is nothing outside of power), while struggles and confrontations suggest the dissention of two or more subjects within the phenomenon (or “force relations”, as Foucault dubs it).
Foucault feels as if coming to an understanding of the mechanics of power will help situate the contexts of the daily struggles of our lives. Further in this essay, this objection is to be taken up again by Charles Taylor.