Foucault on moder power over life

I was little bit too busy last week, but now i’ve got the time to elaborate, correct and finish my paper. My apologies for any inconvenience due to revision. See you on thursday!


2.1 Questions on Power

As Foucault says in 1982, his objective has always “been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects” (1982, 208) and never solely the analysis of power. Nevertheless, power relations and structures are indispensable from the constitution of the subject – therefore Foucault had a long detour that produced the genealogical inquiries on power that covered roughly the 1970s.

Since Foucault’s own analyses of power cover an extensive field and the secondary literature on the subject is enormous, I will only summarize the points most crucial vis-à-vis biopolitics. By and large it can be stated that the genealogical studies are concerned with the formation and development of modern power-knowledge apparatus (dispositif). This apparatus comprises power mechanisms, structures of knowledge, discourses and practices, institutional and administrative procedures and so forth. In the Foucaultian framework the crucial point is that all of these are related to the production of truth and norm according to which everything else is determined, that is, things can be judged as false, abnormal or illegitimate with respect to the conditions of truth and norm in question. What is characteristic to the modern power-knowledge apparatus is its two specific modes of power: disciplinary power targeted on individual bodies and biopower that is concerned with the totality of the population. However, these do not form different theories of power (Foucault always denies having tried to form a theory of power [e.g. 1998, 452; 1978, 82]) although they can be distinguished according to their different field of knowledge as well as different procedures. However, I will argue that in practice they are much more intensively related that Foucault seems to think. I will next summarize the central features of Foucaultian view on power.

2.1.1 Power and knowledge

In his analyses Foucault questions thoroughly the ways in which power has been thought in Western political theory. First of all, according to Foucault, power has been viewed as being reducible to sovereign and its practice has been identified with laws and jurisprudence. He names this model juridico-discursive (1978, 82) and claims that this juridico-discursive model of power consists in binary oppositions of permitted and prohibited, it functions through rule and this negative relation is always realized from top to bottom in a hierarchical order. This model also assumes the uniformity of the power apparatus, that is to say, the sovereign model is represented in all levels where power is being actualized: from a king ruling his people to a father ruling his family (ibid., 82-85). What Foucault suggest instead of reducing power to the state-sovereign or reducing the political to the juridical is to “cut off the head of the king” (ibid.,89) in our political thought and analysis. From this follows his famous methodological precautions for analysis of power:

“ – Power is not something that is acquired, seized or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away.
–Relations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationship (economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations) but are immanent in the latter.
–Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations. – – One must suppose rather that the manifold relationships of force that take shape and come into play in the machinery of production, in families, limited groups, and institutions, are the basis for wide-ranging effects of cleavage that run through of the social body as a whole.
–[Power does not result] from the choice or decision of an individual subject; let us not look for the headquarters that presides over its rationality; neither the caste which governs, nor the groups which control the state apparatus, nor those who make the most important economic decisions direct the entire network of power that functions in a society.
– Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.” (Foucault 1978, 94-95. Quotation modified.).

Here Foucault gives the outlines of power understood as an intelligible name for the multiple strategic relations that constitute society: power is not an institution, a structure nor a strength. It is everywhere and it comes from everywhere since it is simultaneously produced in a multiple points all over the social relations, hence “one needs to be nominalistic” (ibid., 93), that is, power as such is nothing but a name that is attributed to relations where power effects manifest themselves. How does knowledge, then, relate to power relations? In fact, power and knowledge are indispensable in terms of their production and functioning, to which Foucault refers with his concept power-knowledge (pouvoir-savoir). In other words, Foucault rejects the possibility of “pure” objective knowledge produced through neutral procedures or rational inquiry outside power relations: “there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” (Foucault 1995, 27).

Is it trivial to define power and knowledge in this way? Foucault has often been accused of falling into trap with his power-knowledge conception: if power is everywhere in social relations and the subject is already constituted by the existing power-knowledge network there is no possibility of emancipating oneself from oppressing power relations (see e.g. Fraser in Oksala 2005, 176; Taylor 1989). Furthermore, some commentators (e.g. Hacking 1986, 238; see also Gordon 2000, xviii) argue that without giving any normative ground for the critique of oppressive power how can we ever be able to acknowledge something as oppressive in the first place or to argue for better model: everything becomes relative in a sense that social reality is only a manifestation of the prevailing power strategies and history is an endless interplay between regimes of power which are beyond any normative philosophical critique since everything is already inside and constituted by that power, thus forming a singular structure with its own criteria of justification. To the first objection it can be stated that it is based on misunderstanding of Foucault’s notion of power: one should always remember that power is not binary structure nor stable or one-sided relation but a productive and dynamic system that may always be affected through strategies opposite to prevailing power relations. Through these counter strategies one can always try to form conditions that would open up possibilities for less oppressive power relations.

To answer the second objection is also to define how some relation of power may be deemed as more oppressive than the other in a Foucaultian sense: although Foucault certainly lacks any normative definitions of reality in terms of producing a firm theory from which to deduce how things should be arranged in everyday life, and thus, it seems that those critiques (e.g. Seyla Benhabib according to Oksala 2005, 179, Jürgen Habermas in Taylor 2009, Taylor 1989, Hacking 1986) who read Foucault in order to find such a ready-made theory have struggles in finding the positive value of his work. I will not go very deeply into these discussions1, here it suffice to say that the normative grounds for judging whether this or that is more desirable can be found from Foucault’s view on the task of philosophy: “Philosophy is precisely the questioning of all oppressive phenomena on whatever level or form they might present themselves – political, economic, sexual, institutional.” (Foucault 1991, 20; quotation paraphrased, my apologies for not having been able to find the English translation.). This view is of course different from essentialist views, but it opens up completely new domains for critical thinking in the sense that nothing can be justified in terms of essence, nature or some other seemingly objective quality. As Maurizio Lazzarato points this discussion is all about different theoretical presumptions: “Habermas and the philosophers of the Constitutional State are not wrong in taking Foucault’s thought as their privileged target because it represents a radical alternative to a transcendental ethics of communication and the rights of man.” (2000).

Moreover, it cannot be overemphasized in these discussions that Foucault (e.g. 1990, 9) constantly rejects relying on any given value or definition which would render his analysis “fixed”, thus opposing such philosophical views that take some “ineluctable” concepts embodying certain truths as a point of departure for their analysis. To my experience this is especially characteristic to present Anglo-American political philosophy where discussion is usually bound to fixed ideas of freedom, justice, rationality etc., which every once in a while causes difficulties when trying to force Foucault’s thought into framework which is by definition opposes (on this topic see the excellent article by Dianna Taylor [2009]). Hence Foucault, instead of searching fixed concepts from which to deduce justified theories, focuses on practices: according to him we must not investigate power from the centre or exclusive instances, but on the contrary, “make an ascending analysis of power” (2003, 30) which means that we should begin our study from the smallest micro mechanism of power and see how these mechanisms become invested, multiplied, abducted and strengthened, and how from these tactics new ways of general mechanisms and over-all dominations have been produced. In other words, Foucault is not looking for a theory or a principle for applying power but investigating how power is embodied in practices and “ the places where it implants itself and produces its real effects.” (ibid., 28).

This discussion is indistinguishable from Foucault’s idea of freedom: paraphrasing him “everything is not necessary oppressive but dangerous” in a sense that every norm and every truth can become unquestioned given which begins to limit our possibilities to act and think opposing ways to that norm or truth, therefore stabilizing certain power relations and inhibiting the flow of power from one point to another. As Taylor puts it “Foucault sees freedom being characterized not by an escape from power but rather by the ability to negotiate power relations in ways that increase capacities and possible modes of thought and existence.” (2009, 58). Hence, to be able to practice freedom is to be able to question the conditions of our own constitutions as ourselves, it is to be able to understand how things that present themselves as given can be changed into something else. Therefore, it can be argued that the normative grounds for philosophical arguments in Foucault’s work can be found from the ethos of the Enlightenment: political emancipation is possible through grasping the historical conditions where we are situated. Simply, the more we are able to understand the order of things due to which we are as we are, the more able we are to produce and live our own freedom. (Foucault, 1991; 1984; Oksala 2005, 208-210).

What is said above might still be a bit unclear due to the fairly broad strokes I am drawing here. I will thus clarify things with Oksala’s interpretation of Foucault. I think her concept of politicization of ontology explains Foucault’s position with great clarity. This concept implies that our reality with its ontological order is in itself already an outcome of political struggles: “Ontology is politics that has forgotten itself.” (Oksala 2010, 445). According to Oksala, this is what Foucault’s project is to large extent about: to show that there is no necessary link between reality and how it is represented in our ontological schemas i.e. no essence or a given structure will determine the ontological framework – on the contrary, it is always produced through the struggles between competing models arguing for the most coherent and truthful interpretation of reality. To claim that ontology is not a pure description of reality is not, of course, very original thesis today: as Oksala points out, it was already Marx, Nietzsche2 and the German historicists that raised the ideas of ontology of the present being the result of historical struggles for power (2010, 448).

What is remarkable with Foucault though is the way in which he shows how power is incorporated in our daily practices and discourses and thus constitutes the conditions of producing and reproducing truth and knowledge. Therefore, his analysis enables a critical survey to the constitutive effects of power-knowledge apparatus vis-à-vis science, values, politics etc. and, above all, in the end the apparatus itself. On the other hand, arguing for the indeterminate and contingent nature of reality is, of course, to make another ontological claim but Foucault’s power-knowledge nexus should never be understood as an essence nor a quasi-essence but, as Oksala points out, as an analytical grid in order to make our reality and the production of truth more understandable: “Foucault’s idea of a constitutive power-knowledge nexus must be understood, in the light of his ontology, as another analytical grid, fighting for hegemony in the game of truth.” (2010, 457).

In the two following chapters 2.1.2 and 2.1.3 I will give an analysis of the two most fundamental forms of power in modern power-knowledge apparatus, that is, disciplinary power and biopower. I emphasise once again that these are not to be seen as different theories of power nor completely different modes of power, but as theoretical tools for understanding how modern power functions. Therefore we should keep in mind, that although in theory one can distinguish between different levels in ideas as well in practices in these two types of power, in reality they tend to be mixed, intertwined and overlapping to extent where it could be difficult to determine which is now in question.

2.1.2 Disciplinary power and the functioning of the norm

In Foucault’s analyses of power it is stated several times that even though being theoretically distinguishable disciplinary power and biopower are connected within power-knowledge nexus:

“In concrete terms, starting in the seventeenth century, this power over life evolved in two basic forms; these forms were not antithetical, however; they constituted rather two poles
of development linked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations – – The disciplines of the body and the regulations of the population constituted the two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed.” (1978, 139).

To be as clear as possible with Foucault’s idea of biopower I’ll investigate how Foucault thinks these forms of power in fact go together in reality. He gives two different ways in which these poles come together: first, through sexuality, which is not a given feature of human nature in Foucault but a production of power-knowledge apparatus that opens up ways through which human subject as psycho-physical beings can be manipulated, and further, sexuality is, of course, the domain in which human reproduction takes place which thus renders reproduction possible to be manipulated through the sexual behaviour of people. The second is through the functioning of the norm3, that is, a measure through which the normal and abnormal can be identified. However, in his lectures Security, Terrirory, Population (2007, 56-57, 63) Foucault makes a distinction between the functioning of the norm within disciplinary power and biopower: in the context of the former it is always with reference to norm that individuals become modified and schooled, whereas the latter uses different normalities that can be identified in the level of population in order to establish the norm. In other words, in the framework of particular economic-political system certain constants in the population are more favourable than the others and thus norms must be deduced from the favourable constants or normalities: “The normal comes first and the norm is deduced from it, or the norm is fixed and plays its operational role on the basis of this study of normalities. So, I would say that what is involved here is no longer normation, but rather normalization in the strict sense.” (ibid., 2007, 63). In this sense norm is established through surveys and studies of population which produce constants or the normal. From different normalities an ideal normal i.e. the norm may then be deduced and projected back to the population in order to regulate and modify it to some predetermined direction, that is, to prescribe how people should behave (Taylor, 2005, 50-51).

In his Discipline and Punish Foucault concentrates on describing the form of disciplinary power. What is peculiar to disciplinary power is its aim to normalize individuals to be compatible with any given ideal, e.g. a soldier, a student, a patient, a child, a citizen, a worker and so forth. This takes place through techniques targeted on human body. The idea in this is that human bodies are always part of political field where “power relations have an immediate hold upon it [the body]; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.” (Foucault 1995, 25). However, these techniques directed to bodies are not only reducible to violence, state apparatuses or ideologies but they may be much more subtle and non-violent, this is to say, that power that subjects individual bodies utilizes knowledge that is not knowledge about the anatomy of the body and its functioning but knowledge of how to put bodies work and produce within certain political order, that is, “the political technology of the body” (ibid., 26). Furthermore, a body is useful only insofar as it is both productive and subjected (at least in modern disciplinary capitalism) – thus one needs the micro-physics of power in order to produce docile bodies within the level of materiality of the bodies and their forces. The concept micro-physics in its part refers to the flow of power in its most subtle and tiny parts and also to those analytical techniques that take hold in individuals and divide and categorize them in their uniqueness.

Disciplinary power manifests itself most clearly in institutions and to prove his arguments in Discipline and Punish Foucault refers mostly to historical documents that have been written either in already working institutions or in order to produce better ones. The main idea in the book is to show how procedures and practices typical for penal and military institutions spread insidiously all over the society. One could perhaps state that his book is outdated since in most Western countries there are no such institutions any more that Foucault describes, but this view, however, misses the point: the whole idea in the book is to show that the view according to which the Enlightenment created more human practices of punishment compared to Medieval and Early-Modern times is not very coherent. In order words, it might be true that brutal torture of bodies and spectacular executions began to decrease towards the modernity but this was due to wider developments and rearrangements of power relations: due to the rise of capitalism, nations, scientific technology, industry, ideologies, such as, liberalism etc.. Thus there was a need of disciplining individuals in order to create a functioning and productive society in this new economic-political environment. Hence, once again we may think that there is less power and less discipline nowadays because our bodies do not get beaten all the time but it must be recalled that disciplinary power is most functional when you do not even need the violence; when people have internalized power to the extent where it does not need to be physically present and yet it functions. This is the idea of panopticon (ibid., 200-201, I will return to this subject below.) or an organized control as such – which would be difficult to see as diminishing nowadays.

The domains and the techniques that disciplinary power exploits in the process of subjectivation are multiple and in Discipline and Punish Foucault makes many analytical enumerations and divisions between different procedures and their aims. Here it suffice only to summarize the most important: above all, the purpose of disciplinary techniques is individualization and subjectivication. Every human being needs to be distinguished from every other so that they can be investigated, manipulated and schooled as individuals. To be able to affect on the smallest micro-relation of power these techniques have to manage body and its relation to time (e.g. working hours, schedules in schools), to space (e.g. architecture of institutions that renders them to create a dividing space constituted by discipline and surveillance), they have to code the actions that individuals are supposed to carry out, and finally they have to manage to combine forces: discipline is a tactic through which a whole consisting of individuals can be made more efficient by combining individual forces into specific units. (Ibid., 167.)

If these are the areas discipline has to govern, it will manage them through, first, hierarchical observation (e.g. in military camp, in prison or in hospital where the gaze of the authority must be powerful but discreet), normalizing judgement (everything is measured in accordance with norm that gains its power through the disciplines. Norm defines the hierarchical structure in which every individual takes his place: either outside the community as abnormal or closer to the norm as norm. Finally these two are unified in examination: “It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish” (ibid., 184).

In this sense disciplinary power is essentially dividing, individualizing and normalizing (or according to norm, normazing. See above.). It operates within the framework of science and especially human sciences, refers to their production of truth and discourse in order to produce the norm from which practices and aims are deduced. Its raison d’être is both to subject people under certain political rule as to produce individuals as useful and productive in economic terms. In this process specific knowledge on the human body is required and this knowledge is analogous to knowledge of machines: according to Foucault it was the physicists and philosophers of the 17th century who discovered body as docile “which joins the analysable body to the manipulable body” (ibid., 136) and this invention opened enormous possibilities of putting human bodies in to play. (Ibid., 170-185.) I will now proceed to Foucault’s account on biopower and biopolitic and after having clarified what these are aobut, I will pull the strings together on power that operates between two poles: disciplinary power and biopower, that is, power over life.

2.1.3 Biopower and biopolitics

“If one can apply the term bio- history to the pressures through which the movements of life and the processes of history interfere with one another, one would have to speak of bio-power to designate what brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life.” (Foucault 1978, 143).

As Lemke points out (2011, 34), Foucault’s use of the terms biopower and biopolitics is not very consistent. Sometimes he uses these concepts quite synonymously (e.g. see 2007, 22) when usually they seem to denote different phenomena. I will proceed into a detailed inquiry of these different domains and developments in which biopolitics or biopower manifests itself in the next chapter. There I will dedicate an analysis for each 1970s lecture series in which Foucault elaborates these concepts and different techniques through which biopower is applied on population. However, in this chapter I will concentrate on the specific form of biopower and how it is, on the one hand, different from disciplinary power discussed in the previous chapter and how these two will come together on the other, thus forming two essential poles of modern power over life. Here biopower will refer to the form of power that targets its gaze upon humans as living species and collects knowledge about this species in order to affect on it (see 1.2).

According to Foucault power over life started to appear during the 17th century, first in the form of disciplinary power, “an anatomo-politics of the human body” (1978, 139), and then somewhat later came out a power that concentrated upon the species body consisting in propagation, dying, illness, health, life expectancy, mortality etc., and all the things that could make these thing to vary, such as, famine, scarcity, medical science, sexual behaviour etc., that is, “a biopolitics of the population” (ibid.). In this process life was invested thoroughly and no more was power meant to manifest itself by taking lives as the former sovereign power did, but to establish a “calculated management of life” (ibid.,140). What Foucault is not arguing for is that the old sovereign apparatus disappeared but that it had to adjust itself on the new political-economic situation: “[sovereign power] found itself unable to govern the economic and political body of a society that was undergoing both a demographic explosion and industrialization. So much that far too many things were escaping the old mechanism of the power of sovereignty, both at the top and at he bottom, both at the level of detail and at he mass level.” (Foucault 2003, 249). That is to say, that relations of power were fundamentally rearranged through and due to new scientific knowledges: both of human body and nature and of society and human mind which rendered new ways of governing and manipulating possible.

To this moment in history Foucault refers as “threshold of modernity” i.e. the point where man is no more what he was for Aristotle: “a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence” (1978, 143), but a member of a species that can be affected through number of techniques. In other words, “this was nothing less than the entry of life into history, that is, the entry of phenomena peculiar to the life of the human species into the order of knowledge and power, into the sphere of political techniques.” (1978, 141). The era from Early-Modern to Modernity is of course full of phenomena with great historical importance, e.g. industrial take-offs, scientific and technical progress, birth of civil society and so forth, but what Foucault emphasises is the conncection between power over life and the rise of capitalism. Both of these were radical shifts in existing power relations based on sovereignty and feodal societal relations. Foucault wrtites:

”This bio-power was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism; the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes. But this was not all it required; it also needed the growth of both these factors, their reinforcement as well as their availability and docility; it had to have methods of power capable of optimizing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them more difficult to govern.” (Foucault 1978, 140-141.)

Here it must nevertheless be emphasized what Foucault does not claim, namely, that since bourgeoisie became the ruling class during the modernity it wanted to subject people under its rule in order to profit from their labour and thus they applied power over life on people. The case for Foucault is not to pose a question on the interests of the bourgeoisie, contrary to that, he wants to look at the ways in which certain micro techniques and strategies came into play from below. His own examples are the exclusion of the mad and infantile sexuality, he says: “there was no such thing as a bourgeoisie that thought that madness should be excluded or that infantile sexuality had to be repressed; but there were mechanisms to exclude madness and techniques to keep infantile sexuality under surveillance.” (2003, 32-33). Again what Foucault is trying to underline here is that we do not comprehend the functioning of power if we continue to think it in terms of subjects and objects and rulers and ruled. Instead we must look at the ways in which certain “micromechanics of power came at a certain moment to represent, to constitute the interest of the bourgeoisie.” (ibid., 32. Quotation slightly modified). Accordingly, in order to understand the connection between biopower and the rise of capitalism we must concentrate on the techniques that began to contribute for certain political utility and economic profit and thus became colonized and supported by general mechanism of power and finally by the state.

Again we are faced with the question of modern power over life and its functioning, and once again we will see that it is the norm through which this power operates. This power is no more reducible to the law which ultimately can only thread people with death; on the contrary, what is needed for governing (on the art of governance, see 3.1) is regulatory and corrective mechanisms aimed at producing life in certain form. However, these mechanism will require a reference point, i.e. norm, through which life can be measured, qualified and hierarchized and then distributed vis-à-vis its utility and value. What Foucault is claiming here is that law becomes intertwined with the norm in the framework of power over life, in other words, law and institutions of justice doesn’t disappear but they become more and more incorporated with other regulative apparatuses, such as medical and administrative institutions. The crucial distinction is hence no more the obedient and the enemies of the sovereign but the normal and abnormal: “A normalizing society is the historical outcome of a technology of power centered on life.” (Foucault, 1978, 144)

As already noted, the other main domain in which disciplinary power and biopower overlap explicitly is sexuality. Sexuality is, at the same, something through which an individual may be subjected into subject of her own peculiar sexuality, thus making it a tool of disciplinary production of subjectivities. In this sense it forms an important part in the production of truth about oneself as a certain categorical subject, homosexual, pervert or heterosexual for instance, in relation to normal. On the other hand, sexuality is the object of both human and natural sciences which renders it possible to be studied “objectively”, for example one may refer to natural facts in order to justify or explain sexual behaviour in societal context. Furthermore, sexuality produces facts in both domains: sexual subjectivities and behaviour in terms of human sciences but also anatomical-biological phenomena in bodily terms. Finally, sexuality forms a target for biopower in many instances: first, sexual behaviour of individuals produce curves of normality or constants in analysis of population i.e. how much sexual intercourse at which age, is contraception used and which kind, with whom sex is practised, is there possible thread of sexually transmitted or other diseases etc., and second, sex or propagation produce the blood line which is why it is closely connected to eugenics and modern racism (ibid., 149-150. I will discuss this in detail in 3.2.1).

This explains why sex or sexuality became to have such enormous importance within the techniques of power over life: “First, the notion of “sex” made it possible to group together, in an artificial unity, anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations, and pleasures, and it enabled one to make use of this fictitious unity as a causal principle, an omnipresent meaning, a secret to be discovered everywhere: sex was thus able to function as a unique signifier and as a universal signified” (ibid., 154).

Let me now conclude what has been said above. In what modern power essentially consists, according to Foucault, is its urge to control life. This takes place in two distinct level: in the level of individuals through disciplinary techniques and in the level of living mass or population through biopower and its techniques i.e. biopolitics in wide meaning of the term. Both of these modes of power are aiming to maximize and extract forces from human bodies, in other words, produce life in particular framework or form according to averages, constants and normalities. Foucault says: “Both technologies are obviously technologies of the body, but one is a technology in which the body is individualized as an organism endowed with capacities, while the other is a technology in which bodies are replaced by general biological processes.” (2003, 249). Hence “we have two series: the body-organism-discipline-institutions series, and the population-biological processes-regulatory mechanism-State” (ibid., 250). That is to say, that disciplinary power is concentrated (not reducible though) on institution and biopower in its part on the regulative mechanism of the state.

Now, it seems to me that disciplinary techniques produce individual as bodily entity having certain qualities that the disciplinary framework aims to promote, such as, skills in production, skills in behaviour and capacities of being subjected by whatsoever. Above all, discipline render individuals to internalize particular relations of time, space and possible models for action, and thus due to these relations that are already produced by existing power relations, individuals constitute themselves according to the very way in which these relations are constituted. On the other hand, the framework of biopolitics seems to be much more subtle: it controls the conditions of possible forms of life through measurements, discourses, legislation and regulations thus managing the circulation of commodities and human beings. But it also produces individuals who think and act in particular way: for example, when one legislate according to the normalities arising from the population one creates binaries of normal and abnormal which then come to play a role in the behaviour and thinking of the people. In this sense, it becomes quite evident that power produces and this side of Foucault’t power analysis will be the topic of the next chapter.

2.1.4 Productive power and constitution of the subject

An important feature in Foucault’s power analysis is that power produces – not just hierarchical relations or domains of licit and illicit but the very conditions of legitimate knowledge and possible human subjects. This is to say, that the very being that becomes subjected is situated in a specific historical apparatus of power-knowledge network which defines the possible field in which humans can be constituted as subjects. There is no fixed or essential human subjectivity from which one could deduce knowledge, rationality or even consciousness, rather, human subjects are constituted in a complex network of power-knowledge which in practice means “a multiplicity of organisms, forces, energies, material, desires, thoughts, etc. We should try to grasp subjection in its material instance as a constitution of subjects.” (Foucault in “Two Lectures”. Quoted in Oksala 2005, 100).

Especially in Discipline and Punish Foucault uses rather strong formulations in order to put forward his claims: “In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production.” (1995, 194). This idea is clearly represented in the idea of Panopticon which is a par excellence of hierarchizing and individualizing power. The idea is of course well known: a spacial machine without bars or chains but constituted according to an architecture which allows the inmate (or patient, worker, student etc.) always be seen but never know himself whether he is under actual gaze or not. The ingenuity of this machine is its simplicity and effectiveness: anybody whatsoever can use it or be the guard that cannot be seen from the outside and anybody that needs to be surveyed in the most effective manner can be situated in a panoptical cell. This form of ever-present power “produces homogeneous effects of power” (ibid., 202),in other words, eventually the one subjected to this possible gaze will internalize power to extent where it becomes irrelevant whether somebody is watching or not, and thus becomes the guard of himself (ibid., 200-204).

Due to his views Foucault has been accused of being an extreme relativist, behaviorist or social constructivist. In my view Oksala presents a very compelling account on these debates in her book Foucault on Freedom (2005). Some commentators have read Foucault’s views on the constitution of the subject as if subjects would simply be made causally into subjects through power mechanisms and further, that the subject would then internalize the aims of power to the extent where they would do whatever power has made them think they should do. It is even stated that power-knowledge nexus becomes a Hegelian essence appearing in different forms in history or it is compared to Schopenhauerian will or seen as totalitarian structural invariant (ibid., 100-104).

I agree with Oksala that most of these critiques are based on misreading of Foucault. Here we must once again remind ourselves of Foucault’s ontology and the overall manner of his philosophical practice: subject is not a substance, there is no essence of the subject and in this sense subject is only an intelligible name for the form that human being take ( Foucault 1991, 10), thus, according to Oksala, Foucault “asks how the subject itself and its experiences are historically constituted through discursive games of truth, practice of power and technologies of the self.” (2005, 104). But of course one can go further and pose a question on the agency of power-knowledge or the individuals. This is an important question to which we can nonetheless give a satisfactory answer following Oksala’s interpretation: first, we must not think that power-knowledge is some kind of pre-existing a priori vis-à-vis individual, it only refers to concrete practices: “power only exists when it is ecercised.” (ibid., 106). Second, there is no problem of circularity (i.e. that power-knowledge constitutes individuals who then produce that very apparatus) when we do not try to make any artificial ontological distinction between individuals and power-knowledge network: they are not external to each other but form a continuous field where power and knowledge materialize in human practices which create new forms of power and knowledge. According to Oksala:

“Foucault’s genealogies are thus not descriptions of how prepersonal beings are turned into subjects through causal processes of social conditioning, but rather analyses or genealogical mappings of the conditions of possibility of certain practices and forms of the subject. “ (ibid., 106).

I think that in the light of productive power the idea of biopower becomes finally lucid: power functions in an ever dynamic network sometimes stabilizing in institutions, state apparatuses or mass movements but is never exclusively reducible to such instances. What is characteristic to modern power is its two poles targeted to control life and individual bodies. “Who has targeted?” one could ask. Not any particular human subject, that’s for sure. Rather the continuous interaction of power and knowledge and their production in human practices: everybody acts, at least to some extent, according to some notions of facts and values. How we choose which fact is true and what value is desirable is far more complex but in the Foucaultian framework it is an effect of prevailing power-knowledge network. Nevertheless, this nexus is never fully determining totality, but instead includes marginals and breaking points which render counter strategies and innovations possible. Nonetheless, the control over life is always linked to production: most of all, to production of norm and truth. These are ideological reference points in order to force and arrange life into certain forms according to these very norm and truth, in other words, to normalize the multiplicity and multitude of life to predetermined compartments. Thus Foucaultian biopower is one domain in normalizing power that on the one hand collects and organizes knowledge about human life and its conditions and possibilities from which it, on the other, deduces and defines the ways in which this knowledge will be applied back to life, hence transforming into actual biopolitics.


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4 thoughts on “Foucault on moder power over life

  1. I think Foucault didn’t form his own theory of power, because he knew that it would just be one ideology/attempt to gain power among others i.e. form a theory that has real consequences because enough many believe it (or should I say “buy it”?) These kind of ideologies and the fights between them hide the real problems which are those “heavy weight” ideologies very few dare to question: rationalism, liberalism, individualims etc. (these are the symptoms of comformity as a sociel disease). These are the ones that set the norms which suppress anything and everything different.

    I’ve read some of your text and (so far) it is very interesting. Still, I would very much like to see at least a sketch of the chapter “1.1 Purpose and aim of my study.” Is it just writing a thesis on what Foucault said or trying to continue the project he begun (or should I say Nietzsche started? =)


    Your thesis plan seems like (raw) text for your actual thesis. Well, you have 14 pages of a 5 page thesis plan and your last chapter is 2.1.4. out of 4.3. (according to the table of contents in your previous post). I think you would most likely get more ideas and feedback beyond grammar and punctuation, if you would include chapters of bit more general in nature (like the “1.1 Purpose and aim of my study.” I asked).

  3. “On the other hand, arguing for the indeterminate and contingent nature of reality is, of course, to make another ontological claim but Foucault’s power-knowledge nexus should never be understood as an essence nor a quasi-essence but, as Oksala points out, as an analytical grid in order to make our reality and the production of truth more understandable: “Foucault’s idea of a constitutive power-knowledge nexus must be understood, in the light of his ontology, as another analytical grid, fighting for hegemony in the game of truth.” (2010, 457).”

    Is Foucault “fighting for the hegemony in the game of truth” or fighting the hegemony of truth? Why can’t Foucault’s claim on the indeterminent and contingent nature of reality be similar to Aristotle’s notion that every situation is particular? In this sense reality is undeniably particular which means every categorization has an agenda/interest behind it. I think this applies in social/human sciences where categories are set to determine goals/ends (natural sciences and their applications are more clearly tools).

    I hope Foucault was fighting the hegemony of truth. Maybe he just fell into the same pit as Nietzsche i.e. individualism. Foucault just did it in a systematic way, which makes it possible to dismiss his theory as something fighting for the hegemony in the game of truth. To quite large extent liberal individualism has turned Christian tradition and moral norms upside down – especially sexual norms: allowing people to do anything they please is one way of controlling reproduction: sex is just too much fun to be limited by the trouble of having children… Not to mention gay sex with impermeable birth control. Maybe Foucault was just an advocate of this… a forefather of anything-goes-queer-theory?

  4. Hey Kasper, when you mention the objection that Foucault’s conception of power doesn’t allow for any effective counter measures you say that because it is not ‘linear’ but ‘dynamic’ this allows for ‘counter-strategies’ to arise. Do you think this really answers the question? I mean, to me it looks like it just shifts the point needing to be addressed (and naturally relates to the question of totalities) in that we now simply need to object ‘how do counter-strategies actually arise out of a such pervasive power structures’, and to argue that it is because they are dynamic rather than linear doesn’t seem to me to be adequate, there must be some gateway, some starting point that is sufficiently marginal perhaps, or sufficiently exterior to the system of power to function as an origin for a counter-strategy. Or rather I guess I’m asking in what manner does a dynamic situation allow for counter-strategies to arise.

    The question of dynamism and linearity seems to appear again in the last paragraphs in relation to the ontological status of the subject. It’s a really interesting topic. When you say ‘Some commentators have read Foucault’s views on the constitution of the subject as if subjects would simply be made causally into subjects through power mechanisms and further, that the subject would then internalize the aims of power to the extent where they would do whatever power has made them think they should do’, is this a problem of mischaracterisation alone or do you also see it as philosophically problematic in itself. For example you say there is a ‘problem of circularity’ but don’t say why it’s a problem. The reason I mention this is because once we make the ontological distinction and understand the subject and the constituting forces ‘form a continuous field’ then it does seem that there could be problems here as well. One of them you refer to as agency and there is a conundrum there (it seems to me) because once we make the subject more amorphous then in what sense does agency occur? I can see that once we characterise the subject in this way, and still allow for agency and will, how a Schopenhauerian picture appears. Naturally this is based on a very limited understanding so I could be way off. I guess that some of these issues, because of the interruption in a more general thesis they would create, need to remain descriptive rather than explanatory, even so, there is still an interesting discussion of Foucaultian subjectivity to be had, I suppose it already has somewhere.

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