Tuesday 25 August 2009

Foucault and Political Theory

The emphasis placed on the state has declined in sociological discussions of power in recent years, coinciding with the declining fortunes of Marxism. This can be explained in part by a perceived inability to provide adequate answers to the problems social theory is concerned with today. As the introductory chapter demonstrated, contemporary preoccupations with identity politics and subject formation has facilitated and in turn were facilitated by the rise to prominence of Foucault’s work on the academic left. Much of Foucault's utility turns on the alternative conception of power he used to critique traditional political philosophy and the method of investigation he pioneered in unvcovering power’s complicity in the microphysics of subject formation.

Despite Marxism recognising that state power is always resisted owing to the contradictory nature of capitalist social formations, the monopoly of violence it institutionalises on behalf of the bourgeoisie is nevertheless a top-down understanding of power. This departure point of understanding power for Foucault is essentially a continuation of the traditions of political theory he criticises in his celebrated
Two Lectures he delivered in 1976. For Foucault the power of the monarch was institutionalised in 12th century France with the adoption of Roman law and remained intact until the French revolution. The formation of political philosophy took place against this institutional backdrop in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its main conceptual features, such as the conceiving of power as domination, and regarding rights as checks upon the power of the sovereign were shaped by the conjuncture of its emergence. Foucault controversially argues the tools flowing from these concerns are incapable of asking "what rules of right are implemented by the relations of power in the production of the discourse of truth? Or alternatively, what type of power is susceptible of producing discourses in a society such as ours are endowed with such potent effects?" (Michel Foucault. (1976) 1980. ‘Two Lectures’ in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Brighton: Harvester, p.93). This is suggestive of an alternative conception of power where "there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterise, and constitute the social body and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated or implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse. There can be no exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association. We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth" (ibid). From this position, the argument that understands rights as limits on power (domination) needs standing on its head: right is an effect of power, it is one technique among many through which power operates.

Having turned political philosophy on its head, Foucault’s eschewal of sovereignty and right provides a methodological standpoint that analyses power from the bottom up. His genealogical analysis (see next chapter) proceeds from the extremities of power by exploring its effects; dispenses with notions of intentionality (and with it the ‘sovereign’ idea that the individual
possesses power) in favour of viewing power as a relation that relates to and changes its object; understands individuals that are changed, moulded, constituted by power are compelled to resist it and thereby modify the power relations that flow over them. For this to take place power must have knowledge of its objects and be capable of generating knowledges about them. Power and knowledge are necessarily implicated in each other’s operation, which is why Foucault fuses them under the term ‘power/knowledge’. Finally Foucault’s emphasis on power's effects allows for the study of multiple manifestations of power in their radical specificity without trying to frame this diversity in terms of an expressive essential human nature, or a simple reflection of bourgeois interests. In sum, Foucault provides a sophisticated model that can theorise social complexity of power by leaving behind the politics of sovereignty.

CG Prado in his 1995 book,
Starting With Foucault: An Introduction to Genealogy shows just how this operates in Discipline and Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality. Whereas Foucault’s earlier ‘archaeological’ works were concerned with the formations and rules of discourse abstracted from associations with power, the genealogical works trace the lines of descent of a number of political technologies of the body to illustrate the emergence of particular kinds of subjects. Foucault sets the scene in Discipline and Punish with an account of a botched mid-18th century public execution followed by a prison timetable from the early 19th century. Foucault here investigates the movement of power relations from public execution to private incarceration. In these examples the logics of hanging, drawing and quartering served as a public display of the monarch’s power, a practice designed to deter and remind the sovereign’s subjects that they are effectively (and actually) her/his property. However "the economic changes of the 18th century made it necessary to ensure the circulation of effects of power through progressively finer channels, gaining access to individuals themselves, to their bodies, the gestures, and all their daily actions" (Foucault 1980, p.152). The power of the sovereign became decentred, increasingly giving way to the ‘body’ of society. Law and punishment came to be defined in these terms. It was no longer useful for the convicted to be torn asunder in the Monarch’s name - better they become a subject for correction. Rehabilitation overrode retribution as the key principle of jurisprudence. Regulation was emphasised. To understand how this operated, Foucault offered the striking metaphor of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon - the "fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen … maintains the disciplined individual in his subjugation" (Ibid p.187). The subject is aware that at any time they could be observed without their knowledge. Therefore they internalise the external surveillance, giving birth to the penal subject. Thus by acting on the body in a particular way, a ‘soul’ (in the Cartesian sense) has been manufactured through the discursive techniques of the prison and the participation of its convicts.

The insights provided by Foucault’s genealogy of the prison are developed in
The History of Sexuality, an investigation of how we came to be regarded as sexual subjects. His task "is to define the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality in our part of the world. The central issue is … to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said" (Foucault 1978, The History of Sexuality Harmondsworth: Penguin, p.11).

Foucault’s point of departure is premised on his denial of sexuality as a biological given, treating it instead as a product of discourse. Foucault’s discussion of the emergence of sexuality takes us back to the pre-modern era. He argues the regulation of sexual practices were the responsibility of ecclesiastical and legislative discourses and institutions. The married couple was located as the primary site of sexual behaviour - marriage functioned as a pact between families to reproduce; sex was geared toward procreation and were thus the target for sexual surveillance. Sex outside of marriage was ignored in the case of infants, and punished if it was between men. The 18th century saw the beginning of a mutation in this regulation of sex. Foucault notes the emergence of ‘population’ as an economic and political problem that had to be managed. The emerging nation-states had to know about sex in terms of its citizen’s capacity to reproduce and ability to perform self-discipline.

Between the state and the individual, sex became an issue, and a public issue no less: a whole web of discourses, special knowledges, analyses, and injunctions settled upon it.

The 19th century saw an explosion of discourses around sex. The centrality of the married couple in the old discursive regime was repositioned as the unspoken norm of sexual behaviour. In contrast all other modes of behaviour that did not fit into this became marked by the discourses of sexuality. The ‘margins’ of sex were labelled and regulated by seizing hold of the body and learning (constructing) its sexual truths. To illustrate this shift, ‘the homosexual’ is an invention of the 19th century. Prior to this kinship, legislative and religious practices proscribed same-sex relations, but it was only with the explosion of discourses on sex in the Victorian era where the person who engaged in these acts became positioned as a homosexual subject. In this move from sex acts to sexuality-as-identity, the metaphor of ‘the confessional’ as a device to extract the truth of bodies assumes central importance.

The scientific colonisation of the confession was characterised by five devices: the confession was wedded to scientific methods of data collection and psychological techniques; the belief that sex is the root of all psychological maladies and the confessing of problems to an expert are essential for overcoming them; every act committed and sentence uttered is potentially symptomatic, rendering the interpretation of the confession problematic and decipherable only by experts; the shaping of discourse between analysand and analyst with accordance to the aim of providing useful knowledge that fits the above precepts; and to provide the raw material for knowledge. Cathartic effects were merely secondary. In sum, these devices produce sexuality as a viable object for scientific investigation. That is to say power saturates both the deployment of sexuality and the means of studying it, which in turn feeds back into the ensemble of power. Truth is not uncovered by the operation of knowledge; it is an effect of power. As Foucault puts it, "there is no escaping from power … it is always already present, constituting the very thing which one attempts to counter it with" (1980, p.82).

Foucault argues two basic forms of power can be discerned from his genealogies. First, power positions the body as a machine that can be set virtually any task. The disciplinary techniques that ensure its cooperation form an ‘anatamo-politics’ of the body. The second form positioned the body as a biological process open to a medical gaze that categorised birth, health, reproduction, death, etc. which in turn fed the biopolitics of population management. Taken together, the subjugation of bodies and regulation of population constitute ‘bio-power’.

The examples provided here offer profound implications for explanatory social theory. As Nancy Fraser notes in her 1989 book,
Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory, "in revealing the capillary character of modern power and thereby ruling out crude ideology critique, statism and eceonomism, Foucault can be understood as ruling in what is often called a politics of everyday life. For if power is instantiated in mundane social practices and relations, then effects to dismantle or transform the regime must address those practices and relations" (p.26). Clearly there is a distance between Foucault’s ideas of power, which are diffuse, decentred, capable of producing subjects and intimately bound up with knowledges, and Marxism’s preoccupation with the securing of working class state power. Despite the acknowledgment of the importance of non-state institutions by Gramsci and Althusser, ultimately the state is regarded as the source of power and object of struggle. For Foucault, this radical variant of the politics of sovereignty has been superseded; "the political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try and liberate the individual from the state, and from the state’s institutions, but to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualization which is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of individuality which has been imposed on us for several decades" (The Subject and Power, in Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: University Press, p.216). This stance involved an exploration of the limits of subjectivity, on investigation into how the "growth of capabilities [can] be disconnected from the intensification of power relations" (The Use of Pleasure 1986, p.48). The genealogical method was designed to show how power shapes and produces discourses so that activists today are placed to understand its flows and resist its ordering. It is to a more in depth discussion of Marx and Foucault’s method, and their possible convergence at this level, to which we turn in the next chapter.

The whole contents of Toward a Marxian/Foucauldian Encounter can be viewed here.


Sol Nocturnus said...


I'm a regular follower of the blog, even though i never commented before.
I wanted to contact you and ask your permission for translating some of your articles in albanian, and post them to our blog (saktivista.blogspot.com), which is very similar in nature. I didnt notice any email adresses, thats why i m asking you this on a comment...

waiting for your answer

P.S. if you will agree on me posting your articles in albanian, who should i refer as the author?

all the best

Arber Zaimi from Saktivista

Phil said...

Sure, that's no problem at all.

It'll be ok to credit it to Phil BC with a link to the piece in English. That will do!

Anonymous said...

Bounced to this post from one of your posts on the Labour leadership campaign. The problem with Foucault's arguments *generally* is that the method of placing the discourses/ the theorisations ahead of the un- or under-theorised habitual practices produces precisely *false* histories which can be shown to be false by use of the evidence which is a little less selective than Foucault's (and have been in historical work on lunacy, on the prison and related institutions, and on sexualities written after Foucault wrote). The outcome shows Foucault's methodological claims to be severely problematic.

Mike Macnair