Foucault’s Notion of Power

Years ago, when we were in high school, a friend of mine read Ayn Rand and started claiming that self-interest was the fundamental motive behind every single human interaction.  I remember us having a debate: I would point out an instance of – to me – obvious selflessness (a soldier jumping on a grenade, for instance), and he, newly awakened, would respond by rationalizing this action as the most naked expression of selfishness (the guy jumping on the grenade is doing it for his own posthumous reputation, of course). A few years later, when we took a course on Freud one winter, a few of us began jokingly attributing each and every possible event that anyone around us did to a sexual motivation.  (One doesn’t have to stretch one’s brain to imagine the general “level of discourse” involved.)

And yet, adolescent gullibility and dorm-room-philosophizing aside, the reading of any and all motives as either the lowest and most base of all possibilities, or the trimming of all complex human interactions to the attribution of one single, overriding drive is a familiar one, a hallmark of many of the most reductive systems of thought, and one that I have seen frequently cropping up in modern thinkers and writers, especially those in the applied-postmodern / Critical Theory movement.  

But nowadays, it’s not selfishness exactly, and it’s certainly not sex that everyone sees; it’s power.  I have been struck by how much of the modern Critical Theory lens sees power – the desire to attain it, the desire to retain it, and the desire to oppress others – as the main lens through which to understand society.  This is particularly striking when paired against much of the movement’s focus on the social constructionism of all other ideals. Yet power — and the related oppression and domination — truly exist. Discourses, institutions, narratives all “function” either to protect or to preserve power; the noble are the ones who “deconstruct” these discourses, point out how they “function” (which is never as a way to attain gradual improvement of everyone, but to preserve power), and point the way toward “deconstructing” all of this, with an eye toward rebuilding it, sometimes in a quasi-utopian world beyond power struggles, sometimes presumably with one’s own tribe now in control.

But where does this focus on power as the underlying motive come from?  

For years I figured that Marx was the key theorist, and I still think that’s probably true, but I’ve been reading more and more about the tremendous influence of French philosopher Michel Foucault on contemporary Critical thought, and unpleasant college memories of reading him aside, I figured it was time to return to the God of Postmodern Deconstruction, the High Priest of Power.  

I’d read Discipline and Punish in college, but I thought now I’d read The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction instead.  This, my introductory research told me, contained Foucault’s widely influential section describing his view of power – an influential book.  So, with the goal of understanding the present in mind, and with a vague sense of apprehension at some half-remembered notions of dense, interminable sentences, I thumbed open Foucault for the first time in twenty-some years.


Foucault begins by tracing what he considers as the popular narrative of his day: that in the past, sexuality was repressed, specifically during the Victorian Era, and that in the present day many advocates are focused on ridding sexuality of the remnants of this bourgoise repression.  This is not his goal, and Foucault playfully admits that he is going against the currents.

Foucault is a wonderful writer, but I remember the philosopher Susan Neiman’s words of caution about him – that he’d much rather ask rhetorical questions than attempt to provide his own opinions.  His statement of intention early in the book is a good example of the fluidity of his writing, but the obscured quality of it as well:

“Briefly, my aim is to examine the case of a society which has been loudly castigating itself for its hypocrisy for more than a century, which speaks verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function.”

This is certainly beautiful writing, but unclear.  Then come the rhetorical questions:

“The question I would like to pose is not, Why are we repressed? but rather, Why do we say, with so much passion and so much resentment against our most recent past, against our present, and against ourselves, that we are repressed? By what spiral did we come to affirm that sex is negated? What led us to show, ostentatiously, that sex is something we hide, to say it is something we silence?”

It’s not long before Foucault starts talking about the concept of “power” quite frequently, and one can tell it’s no simple notion that he is describing, but a far more subtle, omnipresent notion of power:

“Hence, too, my main concern will be to locate the forms of power, the channels it takes, and the discourses it permeates in order to reach the most tenuous and individual modes of behavior, the paths that give it access to the rare or scarcely perceivable forms of desire, how it penetrates and controls everyday pleasure-all this entailing effects that may be those of refusal, blockage, and invalidation, but also incitement and intensification: in short, the ‘polymorphous techniques of power.’”

Once again, he is very opaque:

“I would like to disengage my analysis from the privileges generally accorded the economy of scarcity and the principles of rarefaction, to search instead for instances of discursive production (which also administer silences, to be sure), of the production of power (which sometimes have the function of prohibiting), of the propagation of knowledge (which often cause mistaken beliefs or systematic misconceptions to circulate); I would like to write the history of these instances and their transformations.”

This seems like he is saying that he is not searching for the truth of what happened, but searching instead for the ways that cultural norms were set up and then covered their own tracks.

This brings up a point about Foucault’s “genealogical” approach.  It is bracing to read, and his analysis is brilliant, and surely plausible, but he is not writing true history or true research.  I was struck right from the start by the long swathes of pages that contain not only zero citations, but no specific references to any sort of real events, texts, or specific people.  I don’t think it’s wrong to say that for most of his – very provocative – points, Foucault provides no specific evidence whatsoever.


One of things I like about Foucault is that, when you step back from his work, he seems to share much in common with libertarian thought.  His work, after all, is largely focused on tracing out the intellectual, cultural, and linguistic takings-over of the administrative state.  Here, for instance, he highlights the intrusion of medical and educational industry professionals:

“Wherever there was the chance they might appear, devices of surveillance were installed; traps were laid for compelling admissions; inexhaustible and corrective discourses were imposed; parents and teachers were alerted, and left with the suspicion that all children were guilty, and with the fear of being themselves at fault if their suspicions were not sufficiently strong; they were kept in readiness in the face of this recurrent danger; their conduct was prescribed and their pedagogy recodified; an entire medico-sexual regime took hold of the family milieu.”

It is hard not to think of Foucault’s critique here of the “medico-sexual regime” when one thinks about the conservative critique four years ago to the global pandemic.  I remember Ross Douthat had an insightful column about the “conservative” Foucault – the outsider critiquing the powerful, and how this critique very much aligns more with the modern right than the modern left.  Douthat writes:  “If Foucault’s thought offers a radical critique of all forms of power and administrative control, then as the cultural left becomes more powerful and the cultural right more marginal, the left will have less use for his theories, and the right may find them more insightful.”

Douthat characterizes Foucault as, “philosophically a skeptical accuser, like the Satan who appears in the Book of Job, ready to point the finger at the cracks, cruelties and hypocrisies in any righteous order, to deconstruct any system of power that claims to have truth and virtue on its side.” Douthat continues:

“In turn, that makes his work useful to any movement at war with established ‘power-knowledge,’ to use Foucauldian jargon, but dangerous and somewhat embarrassing once that movement finds itself responsible for the order of the world.” 

Ultimately Douthat counsels the right not to embrace Foucault’s intellectual framework, which Douthat compares to, “the devil’s tools” because Foucault’s radical skepticism is motivated by a fundamental relativism about the nature of truth and knowledge.

And even more than relativism, Foucault’s critique is not reserved simply for “the powerful.” It seems to include the development of any sort of social norm that has ever existed.  And critique is perhaps the wrong word here – he is trying to expose each social or cultural norm as something socially constructed (albeit not by some powerful force, but by a sense of power far more organic and diffuse – more on that later).  

Even more important, because Foucault does not present a strong moral critique to his analysis – there is no searing moral criticism of “dominant cultural norms” or of “the oppressor” or even any apparent sympathy for the marginalized or underclass – passages like this one tend to feel more like libertarian critiques against the “deep state” (in modern parlance), or as a kind of paranoid conspiracy-theory approach than as Critical attacks against the powerful:

“The old power of death that symbolized sovereign power was now carefully supplanted by the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life.  During the classical period, there was . . .  the emergence, in the field of political practices and economic observation, of the problems of birthrate, longevity, public health, housing, and migration. Hence there was an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations, marking the beginning of an era of ‘biopower’” (139-140).  

Bio-power – this is a famous Foucault-ian term, and, again, this feels more like a critique of the technocratic administrative / Progressive-era government controlled environment – rather than a Marxist or neo-Marxist/Critical attack on the notions of these organizations because they are controlled by a specific group (whites, bourgeoisie, etc.).  Foucault never seems to care which group is running things – it’s as though his abstract notion of power renders the specific groups caught up in it meaningless.  And on the flip side, Foucault is certainly not a libertarian in any recognizable sense – he seems to relish the exposing or unmasking of power rather than to insist on a keep-your-hands-off-me personal freedom.  If anything, he treats the concept of liberation as a kind mirage that he ironically mocks.

Power As Unintended Consequences

The most provocative element of this book, though, is not any particular analysis that Foucault makes about sexuality.  Although his specific conclusions about sexuality are fascinating, plausible, and a joy to read about in his lucid, playful prose, the most important element of this book, to me, is Foucault’s highly influential conception of power.  

What does he mean by “power”?

It’s worth noting that “power” is not only an influential concept as articulate by Foucault, but a fundamental preoccupation of his.  In Volume 1 alone, the word power is mentioned more than 400 times in 159 pages – an average of 2.5 times on every single page.  Before he even gets to the part of the book in which he explicitly defines “power,” Foucault is dropping hints as to what he believes it is.  

The first thing to note is that Foucault uses the word “power” anthropomorphically:

“ . . . Power advanced, multiplied its relays and its effects, while its target expanded, subdivided, and branched out, penetrating further into reality at the same pace.”


“More than the old taboos, this form of power demanded constant, attentive, and curious presences for its exercise.”

And especially:

“The power which thus took charge of sexuality set about contacting bodies, caressing them with its eyes, intensifying areas, electrifying surfaces, dramatizing troubled moments. It wrapped the sexual body in its embrace” (44).

This use of power as a kind of living element, embodied with the ability to advance, to demand, to caress, lends so many of Foucault’s analytical descriptions of events, eras, and historical developments a curious, abstract, no-real-people-involved quality.  Even during times when ostensibly the interactions being described are occurring between two people – for instance, here, in the case of an encounter between a medical professional and a patient, it is power that seems to be propelling the events:

“This produced a twofold effect: an impetus was given to power through its very exercise; an emotion rewarded the overseeing control and carried it further; the intensity of the confession renewed the questioner’s curiosity; the pleasure discovered fed back to the power that encircled it.”

This again is a very abstract way of talking about any sort of interaction.  Foucault continues by discussing the unintended consequences of interactions between sexual deviants, presumably, and their medical or psychiatric or even social observers:

“Power operated as a mechanism of attraction; it drew out those peculiarities over which it kept watch. Pleasure spread to the power that harried it; power anchored the pleasure it uncovered.”

He is very alert here to the paradoxes of the elements he observes: “drew out those peculiarities of which it kept watch.” But he defaults to speaking as though power, rather than human beings, are the drivers of these complex interactions, part of what seems to be a broader, unstated point about how human beings are apparently a kind of vessel for an abstract “power” that flows through them.  This is a very different analysis than say, that which Adam Smith might make in his Theory of Moral Sentiments: that human beings are innately sympathetic and that these medicalized encounters are buffered by psychological and emotional reactions on both sides, predicated on sympathy, or even the need for attention, deriving from an innate human nature.  But human sentiments seem to have little place in Foucault’s analysis.  Even when he references specific human beings – identified, in the case below, by their roles, it is still power that seems to be in charge:

“ The power that lets itself be invaded by the pleasure it is pursuing; and opposite it, power asserting itself in the pleasure of showing off, scandalizing, or resisting. Capture and seduction, confrontation and mutual reinforcement: parents and children, adults and adolescents, educator and students, doctors and patients, the psychiatrist with his hysteric and his perverts, all have played this game continually since the nineteenth century.”

This passage is a good place to talk about how Foucault conceives of power.  Beyond it being a kind of force that acts through us, Foucault believes that power changes us in very subtle ways.  It is not just the classical notion that power corrupts us, but that, in the manner of Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic, power affects us – when we have it or do not have it, both – in fundamental ways that are always evolving, and Foucault is very much alive to the multitude of possibilities of how this occurs.

Specifically, Foucault believes that power is not to be conceived as solely restrictive.  This is one of, if not the main thesis of the book: power did not repress sexuality, but power is also – as he famously writes here, “productive”: it creates new categories just as much as it restricts them.  For example, the ideal of classifying and investigating any new fetishes/sexualities didn’t repress these – it actually isolated and intensified them:

“These polymorphous conducts were actually extracted from people’s bodies and from their pleasures; or rather, they were solidified in them; they were drawn out, revealed, isolated, intensified, incorporated, by multifarious power devices. The growth of perversions is not a moralizing theme that obsessed the scrupulous minds of the Victorians. It is the real product of the encroachment of a type of power on bodies and their pleasures” (48).

Once again, he is anthropomorphizing power, decentering human beings as the agents of their lives, and making a strong truth claim about the notion of power that seems largely undercut by his more general theme of the apparent historicity and social/cultural constructionism of all ideals and norms and perhaps even truth (more on that later), but he’s so good on the nuances of the unintended consequences of all that we do, that it’s hard not to want to go along with him anyway.  

Especially interesting to me is that Foucault is not writing about power from any sort of Marxist binary; there is no heroic talk about the deviant rebelling against power, or about righteous revolution, about rising up against restriction.  Once again, Foucault does not believe that power is simply restrictive, and he’s just as subtle and nuanced in his analysis of the reactions to power:

“This implantation of multiple perversions is not a mockery of sexuality taking revenge on a power that has thrust on it an excessively repressive law. Neither are we dealing with paradoxical forms of pleasure that turn back on power and invest it in the form of a “pleasure to be endured’” (48).

The True Nature of Power

Soon Foucault begins to offer more clues about the true nature of power.  The first point is that power is hidden from us:

“Let me offer a general and tactical reason that seems self-evident: power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms” (86).

This is where Foucault begins to sound less brilliant to me, and more like, frankly, a conspiracy theorist, or at least a reductionist.  The notion that power hides itself is certainly a familiar one, but potentially a paranoid and limiting one, and for his reasoning, Foucault writes a familiar justification, akin the Marxist notion of false consciousness – that humans only accept power because it is hidden:

“Would [those whom power dominates] accept [power] if they did not see it as a mere limit placed on their desire, leaving a measure of freedom – however slight – intact? Power as a pure limit set on freedom is, at least in our society, the general form of its acceptability” (86).

This is an interesting and at once provocative but also incomplete and reductive understanding of “power,” one that demonstrates the limits, in my view, of Foucault’s very abstract, non-human-centered vision of social and political interactions.  Basic questions come to mind: don’t most functioning adults knowingly make trade-offs every day?  Isn’t life itself compose of little more than a series of trade-offs – nothing easy, nothing free, but everything demanding some degree of sacrifice and restriction?  Is this somehow a “dominating” or “oppressive” power?

The law itself, for Foucault, is not anything particularly noble, an Lockean attempt to form a social contract for the purposes of mutual benefit to human beings.  Instead, Foucault’s description of it sounds to me like dorm-room philosophizing and conspiracy theorizing:

“In Western societies since the Middle Ages, the exercise of power has always been formulated in terms of law . . .  It is the code according to which power presents itself and prescribes that we conceive of it.  The history of the monarchy went hand in hand with the covering up of the facts and procedures of power by juridico-political discourse” (87).

Foucault is a brilliant thinker, but he is much more brilliant at saying what is *not* than he is at saying what truly *is.* While his rejection of the standard notion of power as simplistic and repressive was capacious and subtle, his description of what power truly is seems cynical and reductive.  He dismisses the law not as an attempt to codify rules into written and formal dictates, but as mere “discourse” – just a way of talking about something.

This is very different analysis than, say, that of Fredrich Hayek, who argued that the development of the rule of law – known laws, written out –  represented a victory over the arbitrary decision-making of the sovereign, or the arbitrary rule-making of communist governments.  In Hayek’s view (and in the view of many other political thinkers), the rule of law represented a uniquely positive step in protecting the individual’s inherent rights and dignity.  But as Neiman warned, Foucault is simply not interested in evaluating which option was better.  Just as he seems to see modern prisons as just as dangerous as old-fashioned drawing and quartering (in Discipline and Punish), here he seems to bypass the question of whether the rule of law is in fact better than the random expressions of repressive power by a whimsical, tyrannical ruler.  Instead, he tells us that he is going to move ahead with more uncovering of the modern nature of a more diffuse kind of power, promising to continue the inquiry by attempting to locate, “sex without the law, and power without the king” (91).

I also want to mention that reductions like this remind one that Foucault is, after all, not even bothering to use citations, quotes, or even historical evidence to prove his points.  As a result, it is hard not to find oneself taking his claims less than seriously when he attempts to analyze history in such slipshod fashion.

By “Part 2: Method,” Foucault finally begins to slow down to offer his own true definition of power.  He begins by saying that he wishes not to conceive of power as king, law, or even social/political “domination” (perhaps he means in the Marxist sense), but as something more subtle and pervasive:

“The analysis, made in terms of power, must not assume that the sovereignty of the state, the form of the law, or the over-all unity of a domination are given at the outset; rather, these are only the terminal forms power takes” (92).  

Instead power is different, more subtle.  Yet Foucault’s definition is obscure, difficult to follow:

“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 struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate them from one another; and lastly, as the strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies” (92-93).  

Let’s break this down.  So power is:

– The “multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate.” What does this mean?  What are “force relations,” anyway?  This is very abstract language.

– “Which constitute their own organization” – again, what does this mean?

– Power is not only composed of “relations,” but it is a process as well:  “The process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them [force relations?].” 

– “ . . . as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate them from one another” – His language here is almost that of a chemist describing a chain reaction of atoms, and his vision of power is not so much biological as atomistic, as if describing the interactions of molecules bouncing off of each other, repelled and compelled in various directions.

– “And lastly, as the strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies” (92-93).  This part, too, is very curious – power is “understood as” – strategies?  This is to say that power, not humans, are responsible for the design of the state, the law, and even social or cultural ideas?  There is, I think, a strong element of determinism in Foucault’s thought about power – one that says not only that power is the actor, but that power is the only actor, and we are guided by it.

Not surprisingly, for Foucault, because power structures so much of our world, understanding it, particularly where it is hidden (“coded” [93]), is most important to understanding society:  power “makes it possible to use its mechanisms as a grid of intelligibility of the social order” (93).  But you can’t just look for a central point of origin; instead, power is omnipresent:  Power is “produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another. Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (93).

“Power is everywhere . . .  it comes from everywhere.” It is very difficult not to read these lines and not think that Foucault is drifting into conspiracy theory country.  Except in this case, his conspiracy theory is not about any particular agent operating over us, no bourgeoise, no dominant oppressor group, but a kind of deterministic, atomistic operation of electrical energy forces that are buzzing and reacting beneath our every move.  Power is not something different than or acting from the outside on our relationships (he names economic ones, even sexual relations), but something “immanent in” them that actually structures these interactions from the inside.

As if acknowledging how obscure and abstract he is being, Foucault tries to clear things up; he acknowledges that one “must be nominalistic” and finally explains:  “ . . .  power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society” (93).  Again, he is almost more clear about what is not rather than about what is.

He is particularly clear in rejecting the classic view of power as emanating from the ruling class above:

“Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations, and serving as a general matrix -no such duality extending from the top down and reacting on more and more limited groups to the very depths of the social body” (93).  

In fact, he has one of the most remarkably blithe dismissals of Marxist – and, one imagines, Critical – analysis that I have ever read, as he rather offhandedly accounts for widespread subjugation as something of an atomistic accident of localized power imbalances that gather together and eventually form a coherent shape:

“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 the social body as a whole.”

It is almost a chemical accident that these local foci of power link up and result in the larger imbalances which so many thinkers take for granted:

“These then form a general line of force that traverses the local oppositions and links them together; to be sure, they also bring about redistributions, realignments, homogenizations, serial arrangements, and convergences of the force relations. Major dominations are the hegemonic effects that are sustained by all these confrontations” (94).  

One wonders what a Marx or a Freire would think about such a perfunctory nod to social or political injustice.  Power without the king is one thing, but power without an oppressor?  It is certainly starting to occur to me that although Foucault gave the modern Critical movement much of the analytic tools to deconstruct dominant narratives via social constructionism and historicism, as well as a general vocabulary and vision for speaking about the all-encompassing nature of power, ultimately his thinking is too amoral to really be considered Critical.  There is no moral edge to his deconstruction.  It is as though he is simply describing atoms attracting and repelling, in a void.

Foucault continues bursting the Marxist bubble:  Although power is always intentional, it does not result from an individual’s choice or decision, or from a group’s:  “[L]et 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 (and makes it function)” (95).

Yet where are we to find the originators?  For Foucault, this question is almost beside the point:

“The rationality of power is characterized by tactics that are often quite explicit at the restricted level where they are inscribed (the local cynicism of power) . . .” (95).  These “tactics” become “connected to one another, attracting and propagating one another, but finding their base of support and their condition elsewhere, end by forming comprehensive systems: the logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable, and yet it is often the case that no one is there to have invented them” (96).  

Not only is no one specifically to blame for abuse of power, but there is no heroic resistance.  Instead, even the resistors are shaped by the impersonal “force relations”: 

“Hence there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary” (96).  There is only a scattered matrix of resistances, which Foucault again describes in curiously abstract, almost biological terms.  There is no great space of refusal:  “they can only exist in the strategic field of power relations.” 

Even apparent revolutions are dismissed by Foucault as so much geological upheaval:  

“Are there no great radical ruptures, massive binary divisions, then? Occasionally, yes. But more often one is dealing with mobile and transitory points of resistance, producing cleavages in a society — that shift about, fracturing unities and effecting regroupings, furrowing across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds” (96).  It is as though he is discussing the movements of tectonic plates, not of human beings engaged in political and social debate.

Even the resistors are caught up in Foucault’s quasi-conspiracy-theory framing: “Just as the network of power relations ends by forming a dense web that passes through apparatuses and institutions, without being exactly localized in them, so too the swarm of points of resistance traverses social stratifications and individual unities” (96).

Noble revolutions and grinding autocracies alike – these not the result of soaring rhetorical appeals, or cunning but evil ideas that prey on human weakness, or even on real material conditions – they are merely the accumulation of so much static electricity building up and giving off a jolt:

“And it is doubtless the strategic codification of these points of resistance that makes a revolution possible, somewhat similar to the way in which the state relies on the institutional integration of power relationships” (96).

The Four Rules
Next Foucalt, as if sensing that his description of power is incomplete, proposes four general rules about power, although he is careful to tell us that they are not hard and fast rules, but “cautionary prescriptions” (98).

First, is the “rule of immanence” – Foucault does not immediately describe this.  He begins with a provocative claim, insinuating that there’s little difference between investigations for obtaining knowledge and investigations that represent power:  “Between techniques of knowledge and strategies of power, there is no exteriority, even if they have specific roles and are linked together on the basis of their difference.  To understand power, then, we will start from what he calls “local centers of power-knowledge” (98).  He describes the interaction of different people according to their roles as such centers of “power knowledge”:  “between penitents and confessors, or the faithful and their directors of conscience” (98).  

Again, one of the main issues in Foucault is that, although he is a wonderful lucid, playful, even memorable writer when he is describing what is *not*, he becomes cryptic, abstract, near-incomprehensible writer when he is trying to describe what *is.* Here is a perfect example:

“We must not look for who has the power in the order of sexuality (men, adults, parents, doctors) and who is deprived of it (women, adolescents, children, patients); nor for who has the right to know and who is forced to remain ignorant” (98). 

This is lucid and clear.  But then he comes cryptic and abstract:

“We must seek rather the pattern of the modifications which the relationships of force imply by the very nature of their process. The “distributions of power” and the “appropriations of knowledge” never represent only instantaneous slices taken from processes involving, for example, a cumulative reinforcement of the strongest factor, or a reversal of relationship, or again, a simultaneous increase of two terms” (99).

Foucault’s four rules are mostly incomprehensible, at least to me, but he does seem to insist on what feels like an important connection:  “Indeed, it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together” (100) – hence the term “power-knowledge,” which he uses several times in this section, as referenced above.  These are two key concepts for Foucalt.  

Discourse is a word Foucault mentions often in this book, particularly in the early parts as he describes the evolution of cultural and political norms around sexuality.  Discourse is a kind of conversation – a way that we talk about a particular topic, complete with its own language and terms; these terms, in turn, dictate the way that we think about the topic, and therefore, the way that we think about reality.  It is almost as though, for Foucault, reality itself does not exist, only discourses about reality.  Discourse is influenced by power – as power turns its attention, for instance, to homosexuality, a discourse springs up, but discourse in turn creates new places for “force relations” to crackle against each other – which results in new resistance to power, and new directions for power.  As Foucault writes, “Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it” (100).

Meanwhile, Foucault’s invocation of “power-knowledge” – only mentioned a few times in this book, but more deeply outlined elsewhere – is striking.  As I quoted above, he writes, “Between techniques of knowledge and strategies of power, there is no exteriority, even if they have specific roles and are linked together on the basis of their difference.” It is as though Foucault sees the pursuit of knowledge as – not exactly a pure expression of power, but certainly as something very related to, or perhaps generated by, the abstract, almost electrical current-like forces of power.  The desire to learn about the world through science is not a disinterested pursuit of truth, but an expression of a will to power expressing itself as a kind discourse that plants its own new way of talking about the world onto the existing ways of talking about the world.  There is no getting closer to the truth, no true knowledge about the world, only ways of talking about it, all of which are driven by apparently impersonal, somewhat deterministic forces of power that flow through us.


And here finally, is the depth of Foucault’s vision, for me: it seems to end in basic relativism.  Writing about our mistaken notions regarding the Christian act of confessing our sins, he says was somehow believe that “confession frees, but power reduces one to silence; truth does not belong to the order of power, but shares an original affinity with freedom” (60).  Foucault dismisses these as “traditional themes in philosophy, which a ‘political history of truth’ would have to overturn” by demonstrating to us that in fact, “truth is not by nature free – nor error servile – but that its production is thoroughly imbued with relations of power” (60).

“The truth will set you free” – ?  That’s naive, says Foucault.  Truth is just another byproduct of force relations bouncing off of each other, explained almost entirely both by a kind of determinism acting either almost entirely without human agency, or at least explained by the very lowest of motives: power.  This is the cynicism that Neiman had warned about: for Foucault, as for Socrates’s famous interlocutor, Thrasymachus, all human activity, even the pursuit of truth – ostensibly the pursuit that Foucault himself is undertaking – is best explained not by the high – the noble, the good, the righteous – but by the low, the base, the most reductive.  It is, as Neiman wrote about Foucault, power all the way down.

Not that there seems to be any real truth to be found.  Foucault sometimes speaks not of truth but of “true discourses.” Speaking about the pursuit of knowledge about sex, which Foucault calls “scientia sexualis,” nineteenth century society,

“ . . . put into operation an entire machinery for producing true discourses concerning it. Not only did it speak of sex and compel everyone to do so; it also set out to formulate the uniform truth of sex.  As if it suspected sex of harboring a fundamental secret. As if it needed this production of truth” (69).

Truth is not something attained through study of the existing world, it is something produced, socially constructed through the interplay of “force relations” and through the production of discourse.  As for the naive belief that new knowledge about sex is a beneficial thing, Foucault waves his hand:

“As if it was essential that sex be inscribed not only in an economy of pleasure but in an ordered system of knowledge.”

So much for the pursuit of knowledge improving the world.  



In the end, I found Foucault simultaneously far more of a joy to read than I imagined, as well just as hard to read as I remembered.  On the one hand, his prose is very opposite of what I’d remembered: it’s very often lucid, and lively, playful, ironic, and filled with apt allusions, illuminating metaphors, and, frankly brilliant analyses – especially when he is deconstructing popular myths, or traditional understandings.  His analysis about sex in general is not only provocative, but highly original, still fresh, and unexpectedly insightful and nuanced.

Yet this passion for understanding and appreciation of complexity that characterizes Foucault’s critiques is so oddly and dramatically undercut by Foucault’s positive assertions about what is truly going on.  It is as though he has spent thousands of words showing you why careful study of reality helps us understand the world better – and to liberate us from untruth and illusion – while trying at the same time to convince us that no truth is possible, and that all pursuit of knowledge is not so much motivated by greed as by impersonal, deterministic forces that live inside of our cells.  Why, after all, given these conclusions, should we take Foucault’s truth claims seriously – when he has just cynically told us that truth doesn’t really exist?

So I’ve now spent about a week inside of Foucault’s brain, and I’m eager to get out of there.  There’s nothing exciting to me about cynical, undergraduate claims that everything is motivated by power.  And I find Foucault’s description of power interesting, but limited and reductive. Yes, it’s true that the laws lead to unintended consequences – but Diane Ravitch is far more illuminating on how that happens (I’ve written about her wonderful old ed book, “The Revisionists Revised”) than Foucault is.  And it’s certainly true that human interactions are full of multi-dimensional factors that cause us to act and react in unexpected and textured ways – but there is so much more to these interactions than just “force relations” or “power dynamics.” And there are many, many more illuminating writers on this subject than Foucault.

But what is interesting, and what drove me to revisit Foucault, is the question of to what extent he has influenced modern “discourse” (as he’d say) around Critical Theory.  I have read many times that it was Foucault’s belief in the socially constructed nature of reality and in the primacy of power to explain everything – as well as his brilliant use of critique and deconstruction – the careful “unmasking” of the power relations that underlie all of history – that, once allied with certain political goals (the quasi-Marxist focus on the advancement of minority groups in the oppressor/oppressed binary) that led to the modern Critical Theory movement.  

In short, after reading Foucalt, I think that seems plausible.  Foucault’s type of brilliant, freewheeling historical unmasking of the ways in which our norms and even our “truths” (which he likes to blur) were socially constructed is a powerful tool, and one that I see used in article after article, book after book.  Most authors, to their credit, even use actual tools of research – quotes, citations, and evidence – to prove their points.

And it’s just a small step from there – “the way we talk about X is just a social construction” – to a kind of self-righteous desire to realign the way we talk about things: “if we constructed it, we can deconstruct it and then construct it anew.” This seems to me like the step that the Critical movement has taken away from Foucault – going beyond his value-free, amoral deconstructions to a laser-focused, morally-driven agenda of social reconstruction.  

As for Foucault’s strange concept of power that for me borders on a conspiracy theory, I actually see it somewhat less in modern Criticality than I thought.  Foucault’s power is a kind of organic electric current flowing through all of us, almost deterministic.  But modern Criticality seems closer to Marx’s concept of power – the oppressor group over the oppressed group, the use of the means of material production as well as the use of cultural production to reproduce the dominant order  – than to Foucault’s vision of ever-shifting, ever-crackling pockets of local interaction.  In fact, I think it’s almost a misnomer to term Foucault a “social constructivist” – it’s almost as though he is a “power constructivist.” Foucault is surprisingly deterministic about the way “true discourses” or cultural norms are created.  It’s not the social construction of a dominant group; it just sort of happens in an organic fashion, like so many currents of electricity racing toward the quickest route to the ground.

But at the same time, the modern Critical movement *is* obsessed with the notion that power is underneath everything, and Foucault’s insistence on the low – that everything, in a sense, is just a mask for power – is certainly a modern preoccupation in an even more naked fashion than it seems to me exists in Marx.

So if I had to say, concerning modern Criticality, I think Foucault gave the deconstructive tools and the same radical skepticism of any inherent truth, as well as the reduction of everything to “power,” while Marx lent the basic oppressor-oppressed structure, and later theorists lent the notion of identity politics and the moral push toward liberation (which Foucault would have scoffed at).

In fact, as I mentioned about Ross Douthat’s column on Foucault, I do think Foucault would have gleefully deconstructed the modern Critical movement.  I have to imagine that he who mocked the belief that learning and talking more about sexuality had anything to do with liberation would have sneered at the notion of any specific social movement for political recognition being “liberatory.” I think, in a sense, he’d have seen the movement as nothing more than just another “meta-narrative” to be deconstructed, the modern way of understanding identity groups as just another form of discourse evolved by relations of power.  

But who really can say?

Again, I like the “libertarian Foucault” – the one who is skeptical of every incursion on our lives by the administrative state and their attendant procedures, inquiries, and jargon.  I like that he questions our social norms, and I think that this line of inquiry opens up really fruitful forms of research and questioning.  But where I get off the boat is his radical skepticism toward objective truth.  Yes, truth is influenced by culture, but issues of power, by personal bias even, but that does not mean it does not exist or cannot be accessed.  

Either way, I don’t think I’ll be returning to Foucault any time soon.  His historical analysis seems too slipshod, and his theory of power is too ill-defined and conspiratorial and – finally – narrow to really explain the world, especially compared to the many richer, more comprehensive writers.  

But then again, that wasn’t his goal in the first place, was it?