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Power and Discourse: Michel Foucault and his Theories 

1998/12/10 Liu Wanli

I. Introduction and background:
II.  Power and Knowledge  III. Foucault and Althusser 
IV. Foucault's critique of Marxism  V. Questions 
Foucault's constant emphasis on power and on discourse provides a unifying core on his work. In his view complex differential power relationships extend to every aspect of our social, cultural and political lives, involving all manner of (often contradictory) 'subject-positions', and securing out assent not so much by the threat of punitive sanctions as by persuading us to internalize the norms and values that prevail within the social order.

I. Introduction and background: 

    A. Foucault's view of history:
    • Foucault's works are based on a vision of history derived from Nietzsche. He expressed his indebtedness to Nietzsche for having outlined a conception of history called genealogy. The method of genealogy involves a painstaking rediscovery of struggles, an attack on the tyranny of what he calls ¡¦totalizing discourses¡¦ and a rediscovery of fragmented, subjugated, local and specific knowledge. It is directed against great truths and grand theories.¡]p.80¡^
    (¡°  vs. Lyotard's grand narrative/small narrative)

    ¡P Foucault rejects the Hegelian teleological model, in favour of Nietzschean tactic of critique through the presentation of difference. The gap between the past and the present underlines the principle of difference at the heart of Foucault's historiography.

    • Foucault often uses the term Genealogy to refer to the union of erudite knowledge and local memories which allow us to establish a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of this knowledge tactically today. Genealogy focus on local, discontinuous, disqualifies, illegitimate knowledges against the claims of a unitary body of theory.

    B. Foucault's Work in Different Stages:
   Reason and unreason :
  • Madness and Civilization
Foucault's early work is mainly concerned with the growth of those disciplines which are collectively known as the social or human sciences. As an answer to the question of how the human sciences are historically possible and what the consequences of their existence are. In his first book, Madness and Civilization, Foucault describes how madness comes in the 17th.c to be perceived as a social problem. The 'madship' was replaced by the 'madhouse'; instead of embarkation there was confinement.

Madness during the 19th c. began to be categorized as social failure. The asylum of the age of positivism was not a free realm of observation, diagnosis and therapeutics, it became a juridical space where one was accused, judged and condemned¡Xan instrument of moral uniformity. The birth of the asylum can be seen as an allegory in the constitution of subjectivity.

  • The Birth of the Clinic
Is subtitled ¡¥An Archaeology of Medical Perception¡¦; this perception of ;gaze; is formed by the new, untrammelled type of observation, condense a general historical argument into a tracing of the emergence of specific institutions.
  • The Order of Things & The Archaeology of Knowledge
Deal largely with the structure of scientific discourses. There is a whole new 'regime'¦ of discourse which makes possible the separation of what may be characterized as scientific from what may bot be characterized as scientific.
    • Looking back on his early work, Foucault conceded that what was missing was a consideration of the effects of power.

    • In his later work, where Foucault is concerned with power and knowledge, and talk about 'apparatus' which is a structure of heterogeneous elements such as discourses, laws, institutions. The apparatus contains strategies of relations of forces supporting, and supported by, types of knowledge.

   A struggle over meaning

  • I, Pierre Riviere¡K A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century
One of the main themes of this dossier is the problematic division between the innocence of unreason and the guilt of crime. This work is truly interdisciplinary in that one can approach it from the point of view of history, politics, literature, psychiatry, or the law. This book gives us an idea of how a particular kind of knowledge such as medicine or psychiatry is formed. It also exemplifies one of Foucault¡¦s main preoccupations: the attempt to rediscover the interaction of discourses as weapons of attack and defence in the relations of power and knowledge.

   Disciplinary Power

Foucault argues that knowledge is a power over others, the power to define others. In his view knowledge ceases to be a liberation and becomes a mode of surveillance, regulation, discipline.

  • Discipline and Punish
Focuses on the moment when it become understood that it was more efficient and profitable to place people under surveillance than to subject them to some exemplary penalty. This transition in the 18th century corresponds to the formation of a new mode of exercise of power. So that punishment takes the form of a ritual intended not to 'reform' the offender but to express and restore the sanctity of the law which has been broken.

In contrast to monarchial power, there is disciplinary power, a system of surveillance which is interiorized to the point that each person is his or her overseer.

The transformation of Western societies from monarchical power to disciplinary power is epitomized in Foucault's description of the Panopticon, an architectural device advocated by Jeremy Bentham towards the end of 18thc. According to Foucault. The Panopticon is a machine in which everyone is caught and which no one knows.

    Technical rationality

  • Max Weber vs. Foucault
Weber, following Nietzsche, argued that scientific rationality focused on means but not on ends. Instrumental reason cannot tell us anything about how to live our lives. Foucault reiterates the fears of (Nietzsche and) Weber: science uncovers the mythology in the world, but science itself is a myth which has to be superseded.
  • It closes to the theories of 'critical theorists' of the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer.
   Sexuality and power
  • The History of Sexuality; Volume one: An Introduction
One of the main points of the book is that sexuality is far more a positive product than power was ever repression of sexuality. Foucault¡¦s work shows how in the 18th c. processes of training and regulation of human bodies emerged in a wide range of specific institutional locations: in factories, prisons and schools. And then, at the beginning of 20th

c., the discourse on sex became a matter of science. Foucault's main example of a modern discourse on sexuality is psychoanalysis.

The fundamental thesis of the book is that sexuality is not a natural reality but the product of a system of discourses and practices which form part of the intensifying surveillance and control of the individual.
III.  Power and Knowledge

  • The individual subject was an empty entity, an intersection of discourses.
  • Modern power operates through the construction of 'new' capacities and modes of activity rather than through the limitation of pre-existing ones.
  • The relations of power do not emanate from a sovereign or a state; nor should power be conceptualized as the property of an individual or class.
  • The exercise of power itself creates and causes to emerge new objects of knowledge.
  • A relationship of power is that it is a mode of action which does not act directly and immediately on others. It acts upon their actions: an action upon an action.(p.427)
  • At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom.
  • The analysis, elaboration and bringing into question of power relations and the 'agonism' between power relations and the intransitivity of freedom is a permanent political task inherent in all social existence.
  • Every power relationship implies, at least in potentia, a strategy of struggle.

III.  Foucault and Althusser

1.the similarities of Foucault and Althusser

  • Anti-humanist approach:
Foucault and Althusser regard humanism as an error; anti-humanists argue that unconditional emancipation is a fantasy, and that fantasy are dangerous.
  • Both emphasize the necessity of applying certain anti-humanist theories to the reading of texts
  • Both produced work that raises problems rather tan provides solutions.
2.the differences of Foucault and Althusser
  • Foucault is often depicted as some sort of freewheeling relativist in contrast to Althusser.
  • Foucault argues that the character of the knowledge of the human sciences is different from that of the natural sciences. But Althusser thinks that science produces its own objects and that is itself the product of social practices.
  • Foucault rejects the concept of ideology.

IV.  Foucault's critique of Marxism
  1. Power is not located in the state apparatus; it passes through much finer channels and is much amore ambiguous, since each individual has at his or her disposal at least some power.
  2. It should be remembered that the reproduction of the relations of production is not the only function served by power. The system so f domination and the circuits of exploitation certainly interact, intersect and support each other, but they do not coincide.
  3. Foucault is deeply antagonistic to the Marxist concept of ideology, the reasons is as below:
  • Firstly, it always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth.
  • Secondly, analyses which prioritize ideology trouble him because they always presuppose a human subject on the lines of the model provided by classical philosophy.
  • Thirdly, ideology stands in a secondary position relative to something which functions as its base, as its material economic determinant.
  • Foucault therefore stresses the importance of local, specific struggles and believes that they can have effects and implications which are not simply professional or sectoral.

IV.  Questions:
  1. What's the relationship of Nietzsche's theories of power with Hegel's dialectic theories and their influences to post-structuralists ?
  2. Is there any familiar tendency of Lyotard's narrative theories with Foucault's genealogy?

  3. Reading materials:
    1.Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, "Foucoult and the Social Sciences"
    2.Michel Foucault, "The Subject and Power."   Ed. Brian Wallis.  Art Aafter Modernism : Rethinking Representation.¡@New York : David R. Godine Publisher, 1984.