Foucault’s understanding of power

«Prior to Foucault, power was largely seen as a “thing” which was “held” by certain dominant groups. For Marxists, and people on the Left generally, power was seen as something held by the dominant class, the bosses, the owners of the means of production. The workers, in this system, were powerless, because in order to earn money to live they had to surrender to their exploitation by the dominant class. For feminists, it was men in patriarchal society who had the power; women were the powerless.

Foucault’s understanding of power is quite different. For Foucault, power is not an asset which a person can have; rather, power is something exercised within interactions. Power flows through relationships, or networks of relationships. You couldn’t really say that someone was powerful, per se, then; but you could say that they frequently found themselves in a powerful position, or had many opportunities to exercise power.

Foucault’s clearest description of power occurs in Chapter 2 or Part 4 of The History of sexuality, Volume One: The Will to Knowledge (1998 [1976]). Here he says:

“Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere (…). 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.” (…)

This view of power also, unsurprisingly, upset those who were attached to the previous model. To see power as a force held by a dominant group – as in the traditional view – is valuable, from a political point of view, because it highlights the inequality between the dominant people and everybody else, and it emphasizes exploitation. Sometimes it was hard to see what it really meant, though, and it was always based on a one-dimensional definition of power. (…)

So the idea that power is not actually a glorious substance held by dominant groups makes sense. But this is a disappointment if we liked to be able to oppose domination and support minorities; the old model allowed us to jeer at nasty powerful groups, whereas Foucault’s model seems to have taken that opportunity away. (…)

Meanwhile, Foucault is not saying that there are no inequalities in society, or no marginalized groups. In fact, Foucault himself was quite an activist in support of minorities. Foucault’s message, then, is not automatically reactionary just because it proposes a new way of looking at how power works. It doesn’t really say that you can’t jeer at nasty powerful groups, either, but it encourages a more practical and sophisticated approach to examining how that power is exercised. (…)

Foucault says that power is productive. Whilst the traditional view of power would see it as a negative force, and a dampener on interesting things happening, in Foucault’s eyes the exercise of power might have positive or negative consequences, but most importantly is productive, bringing things into being – whether as a result of the original action, or the effects of resistance to it, or both. This does not mean that Foucault is saying that acts of power are always “good,” as such – just that they cause things to happen, and are rarely one-dimensional.»

– Gauntlett, David. Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002. 115-125.

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