Sunday, March 19, 2017

Foucault on Power and Knowledge - Summary

Foucault notions about Power/Knowledge appear throughout his writings and the summary here relies on his discussion of it in The History of Sexuality)

Power according to Foucault is a multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization.

Here, Foucault is not referring to a group of institutions that ensure the subservience of citizens of a state, a mode of subjugation as a set of rules, or a system of domination in which there are rulers and the ruled.

According to Foucault, power is omnipresent, not because it embraces everything uniformly, but because it comes from everywhere.

Foucault’s propositions on power:

n  Power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of non-egalitarian and mobile relations
n  Relations of power are immanent in other types of relations
n  Power comes from below – there is no binary opposition between the ruled and the ruler.
n  Where there is power, there is always resistance. Resistance is never exterior to power.
n  One is always inside power. There is a plurality of resistances which exist in the field of power relations.
n  Discourses can be an effect or instrument of power. But they may also be a point of resistance.
n  Discourse transmits and produces power, but it also undermines and exposes it.


“Discourses are not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it, any more than silences are. We must make allowance for the complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it.”


From Power/Knowledge:

According to Foucault, right-wing social scientists always perceive power in terms of sovereignty and law. And Marxists see power in terms of the state apparatus.
Foucault, on the other hand, was interested in how power is exercised and what its techniques and tactics were.

With these concerns, he studied psychiatry and penal institutions (prison system). Although these may seem unimportant, for him, psychiatry and penal institutions are essential to the general functioning of the wheels of power.

Foucault’s criticism of two concepts makes clear his understanding of power: the Marxist concept of “ideology” and the Freudian concept of “repression.”

He opposes ideology because this concept always stands against something that is supposed to count as truth.  Ideology always refers to a Subject. It is always secondary to an infrastructure; a material, economic determinant. In Marxism, “base determines superstructure,” that is, the relations of production determine the ideas. As Marx said, “in every epoch, the ideas are the ideas of the ruling class.” Marx and Marxist thought seeks to unravel that ideological stratum to get down to truth, which is the conflictual relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The Subject who is capable of knowing this truth is the working class-in-itself.

Foucault says that, rather than ideologies, he is interested in how “effects of truth” are produced within discourses – which are neither false nor true.

He opposes the concept of repression because this concept is only about the effect of power as repression, that is, “power that says no,” that prohibits. It is a juridical conception of power.

For Foucault, repression is a negative conception of power. And as such, it is incomplete.
*What makes power hold good, what makes people accept it, is that it produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.

According to his analyses, the “productivity of power” increased after the 18th century in Europe. A new “economy of power” emerged. Procedures that allowed effects of power to circulate in a continuous, uninterrupted manner emerged.  

Example: In The History of Sexuality, Foucault was concerned with emerging discourses about infant (children’s) sexuality and homosexuality, among other things. It is often considered that the emerging bourgeois society of the 18th and 19th century Western Europe repressed child sexuality and homosexuality as undesirable, sick, abnormal, etc., but Foucault rejects this view.

For him, by constantly writing about infant sexuality or homosexuality as a disease, as abnormal, etc., in fact, the medical discourse created an infant sexual identity, it sexualized the parent-child relationship, and also, it created a homosexual identity (as well as a heterosexual one). It should be stressed that until the 19th century, homosexuality was considered to be an act that a person might engage in the course of his/her life. Although it was condemned, homosexuality was not considered to be an identity. But the medical discourse created a homosexual identity. This opened the way for the creation of a subjectivity around homosexuality, of homosexual desire, etc.  Later, in the second half of the 20th century, homosexual identity became the starting point for “resistance,” namely, the gay rights movement in the west. 

More about Foucault:



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