Foucault and agency

I believe solidly in human freedom.

Michel Foucault, (2000) [1984]. Interview with Actes. In Power. J. D. Faubion (Ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. New York: The New Press.

An interesting comment in response to my reflections on the Foucault quote for May has prompted me to add these further remarks.

Since the early 1980s Foucault has been criticised – particularly by sociologists and also by Habermas et al for not having a theory of ‘agency’. Quite apart from indicating an inability to think outside the boundaries of a certain way of conceptualising the world, this criticism also indicates an ahistorical reading of Foucault’s work. If in his earlier work he doesn’t discuss in detail the interiority of the way people made decisions about action, his work is all about showing that these decisions were not inevitable and that the current configuration of culture is not the result of some pre-determined process. Quite the contrary in fact. There is a good deal of accident, chance, and petty politicking which operates in any situation making its outcome unpredictable. [1]

Even if the historical systems of order Foucault describes necessarily limit the action of those located within those systems, there is always room for resistance and change even if change sometimes comes at a high individual cost. Foucault is always interested in describing a specific historical situation – not how things are at some eternal level. This historicity means that systems of order cannot be absolutely determining. Such systems are the complex result of a myriad collection and interaction of human actions in every arena of human activity, not the result of a conspiracy exercised by a few or by some mysterious ahistorical force.

Foucault’s work proliferates with examples of his fundamental belief that things can be changed for the better in specific situations. But what differentiates him from some other grand theorists is that the course of action he proposes is not simple or reductionist. There is no quick fix and no magic bullet which will solve for once and for all the ills of the world. This is perhaps what frustrates people who are looking to his work for some overall advice on what they should do. Instead Foucault proposes constant and daily work in the realm of thought and of action, to be undertaken by each individual in the quite specific circumstances in which they find themselves. There is no end to this work as new situations and problems are constantly arising. He notes:

that it is a question of constructing not a system but an instrument: a logique appropriate to power relations and to the struggles taking place around them…
this research can only be done step by step, on the basis of a reflection (necessarily historical in certain of its dimensions) on given situations. [2]

He is also happy for his work to provide ‘tools’ which people can use to construct their own ways of implementing postive change. As he says further

All my books, The History of Madness or Discipline and Punish are, if you like, little tool-boxes. If people want to open them, use a sentence, an idea, an analysis as a screwdriver or a spanner in order to short-cicuit, disqualify and break systems of power, including if need be, those which have given rise to my own books, well, so much the better! [3]

This and Foucault’s constant insistence on the historicity of all systems of order would seem to counter arguments positing a determinist approach in his work. Further, Foucault is not suggesting an overall plan but rather a piecemeal approach tailored to the situation in hand.

Human beings, in Foucault’s view, are by no means determined by the historical and cultural circumstances in which they find themselves. As he says elsewhere he ‘believes solidly in human freedom’ [4] defining that freedom as a practice of making choices, not as a distant goal. Foucault is not interested in providing an easy template for universal application. Indeed, he doesn’t believe it is possible to do so. But he is interested in people making use of their ability to choose, in order to use his work as a tool (amongst others) to undermine intolerable systems and practices of power.

[1] See Foucault. (1994) [1971]. Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire. In Dits et écrits, Paris: Gallimard, t. II, p. 141.

[2] Foucault, (1979). Power and Strategies, in M. Morris & P. Patton (Eds.), Michel Foucault: Power, Truth, Strategy, Sydney: Feral Publications, p. 57.

[3] Foucault [1975]. Des supplices aux cellules. In Dits et écrits, Paris: Gallimard, t. II, p. 720.

[4] Foucault, (2000) [1984]. Interview with Actes. In Power. J. D. Faubion (Ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. New York: The New Press.

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