Monday, February 27, 2017

Michel Foucault - "The Subject and Power" - Summary and review (part 1)

In "The Subject and Power" (1982) Michel Foucault summarizes his perceptions on the human subject and manner in which it is determined by power structures (offered in long detail in his previous works). Foucault (like other French philosophers of his time like Louis Althusser) rejects the humanist notion of a free and rational subject for a view of it as determined by a system of power relations. At the base of Foucault's view in "The Subject and Power" is the base assumption that power is not wielded through oppression but rather through the manufacturing of "individuals". Foucault notes the double meaning of "subject", both a self-aware topic of something and something which is controlled, subjected. Both of these meaning s intertwine in the manner Foucault analyses relations between the subject and power.

Foucault starts his description of power as  turning the subject into an object, an object of knowledge, of language and of the power which is mediated through them and that create subjects. He describes three manners of objectification which turn individuals into subjects. The first way is modes of inquiry aspiring to the status of science which produce "objective" knowledge about the subject, thus objectifying life itself. The second practice of objectification Foucault describes has to do with separation and distinction such as those drawn between mad and sane, criminals and law abiding citizens (notions offered in his "Discipline and Punish" or "Madness and Civilization").  The third mode of objectification has to with the manner in which individuals turn themselves into subjects by identifying themselves in relations to larger structures, like for example sexual orientation (discussed in Foucault's "History of Sexuality").

These processes are related according to Foucault to specific forms of political rationality, a mode of thinking described by Max Weber which is concerned with appropriating means to ends. This instrumental rationality, according to Weber, takes over modernity which seeks control over society (like Weber's example of bureaucracy. see also in our summary on Weber's rationality and modernism). But unlike Weber that described a general rationality as the markings of modernity, Foucault draws our attention to more specific types and modes of rationality which developed in different fields such as sexuality, psychiatry and science which he thinks predate modernity and even Enlightenment.

The next part of our summary of Michel Foucault's "The Subject and Power" will discuss how he analyses these power relations by examining different ways of resisting power (see also part 3 of the summary)

Knowledge is power, get some: