Foucault on power and resistance

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Relations of power are not in themselves forms of repression. But what happens is that, in society, in most societies, organizations are created to freeze the relations of power, hold those relations in a state of asymmetry, so that a certain number of persons get an advantage, socially, economically, politically, institutionally, etc. And this totally freezes the situation. That’s what one calls power in the strict sense of the term: it’s a specific type of power relation that has been institutionalized, frozen, immobilized, to the profit of some and to the detriment of others.

[Michel Foucault. Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual. An Interview with Michel Foucault by Michael Bess, History of the Present 4 (Spring 1988), p. 1]

Random thoughts in response

This is one of my favourite interviews with Foucault and was conducted in French in 1980 while he was at Berkeley. In this interview he explains a number of his ideas very clearly and simply and also indirectly addresses a number of perennial criticisms of his work, such as accusations of moral nihilism. I have posted up a couple of remarks made by Foucault in relation to how he describes his ‘morals’ over the last couple of months.

In this particular passage, after having explained earlier that power is a relation, he goes on to talk about the way relations of power are institutionalised in a way that can produce the illusion that power is a fixed essence that some people have and others don’t and that little can be done about this beyond destroying those who have this power. By arguing that power is a relation between people and that particular social institutions have to work very hard and continuously to maintain particular relations of power, Foucault opens up the hope that every person, no matter how low down in the hierarchy, has the capacity to disrupt and change relations of power and have a destabilising impact on the system even if at a miniscule level.

Even the most rigid institution and arrangement of power relations is inherently unstable, and concerted and unspectacular non-cooperation by those involved can lead to change. This is not to say however, that the cost to individuals for such resistance might not be high, but it does bring action to within the realm of everyday possibility rather than it being a matter of waiting for the grand moment of violent revolutionary overthrow. At the same time, this also means that everyone becomes responsible – not just a few. Seemingly insignificant acts of compromise all contribute to the ongoing fossilisation of unjust and oppressive systems just as an accumulation of seemingly insignificant resistances can ultimately lead to their breakdown.

3 thoughts on “Foucault on power and resistance

  1. When Foucault describes Power as not essentialy oppressive or repressive, he means this in a non-normative. He is not trying to say that power can also cause good things(or bad things).
    Taking the example of sexuality Foucault tries to show us how mechanisms of the production of knowledge are deeply connected with mechanisms of power.
    Historically the discourse on sexuality can be seen or interpreted as one of the oppression of certain forms of sexual behaviour but foucault argues that this is wrong because instead of opressing these forms of behaviour the discourse on sexuality produces subjects of this behaviour. Certain forms of perversion for example are planted within the reality of the subject, they become its flesh and bones. He describes this process by looking at various modes of medicinsation of the sex in the past 200 years.
    So by rejecting the commonly used repressionhypothesis he wants to stress the ways in which power also creates very specific forms of knowledge and behaviour.
    greetz Jonas

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  2. Foucault also argues that power relations can be used in a positive way to positively guide the conduct of others. So, for example, the teaching relation is a power relation in that the teacher is trying to modify the behaviour of the student In educational institutions, there are a whole lot of measures in place to ensure that this happens and penalties for non compliance. But this same teaching power relation can be used to produce highly oppressive effects as well.

    I think the bottom line here is that any power relation is dangerous – even ones set up ostensibly to guide people’s conduct for their own benefit.

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