Foucault, power and difference

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

I see nothing wrong in the practice of a person who, knowing more than others in a specific game of truth, tells those others what to do, teaches them and transmits knowledge and techniques to others. The problem in such practices where power – which is not in itself a bad thing – must inevitably come into play is knowing how to avoid the kind of domination effects where a kid is subjected to the arbitrary and unnecessary authority of a teacher, or a student is put under the thumb of a professor who abuses his authority. I believe this problem must be framed in terms of law, rational techniques of government and ethos, practices of the self and freedom.

Foucault, M. (1997). The ethics of the concern for the self as a practice of freedom. In P. Rabinow (Ed.) Ethics: subjectivity and truth. New York: New Press, pp. 298-9.

Random thoughts in response
In an earlier blog post I noted:

If we regard all human culture – without exception – as a complex way of dealing with the environment and social interaction, then we all have an obligation not to dismiss certain intolerable practices as quaintly folkloric simply because they are not part of our own ‘culture’, but to work with other human communities to modify the way human beings treat each other everywhere. From the Western point of view, this does not mean engaging in the patronising paternalism of an allegedly more enlightened Western culture (along the lines that ‘Western democracy will save the world’ for example). Neither, on the other hand, does it mean the rejection of a corrupt and over-civilised Western culture which has lost touch with its primitive roots.

But if these are two positions that need to be avoided – what position can one usefully adopt? Here one needs to extend the frontiers beyond ‘the West’ and encompass all human experience. Perhaps what is involved is the non-hierarchical recognition of and respect for difference, a position which doesn’t privilege one period of history and its practices (either the ‘natural’ and ‘primitive’ or the current advanced technological present) or one geographical or ethnic location (wherever that might be on the planet). It is also a position that sees differences not as existing in unchanging and static isolation – hermetically sealed away to be revered in their unique and eternal form, but which welcomes a constant interplay between them, encouraging their constant modification in relation to each other.

At the same time, this does not mean that every human practice should be tolerated. Exercises of power that negatively impact on the well-being and freedoms of people (and other species I might add) should always be challenged. But again, this statement needs to be qualified in various ways. It is not a question of promoting unlimited individual freedoms (to take an extreme example, the freedom of a serial killer) – but of balancing the interplay of freedoms in the social body. This has always been the dilemma of human societies and remains all too clearly a work in progress with frequent and spectacular failures along the way. Foucault suggests that this situation needs to be managed through the dynamic and always open practice and examination of law, and the ethical government of self and others.

Further, as Foucault usefully argues, not all exercises of power are bad. It is possible to positively guide the conduct of another – for example in a teaching situation. To expand on this example further, the teacher student relation is necessarily a relationship of power. Just how this is managed has always been fraught with difficulties, and complex and ever changing systems of regulation continue to be formulated both at overt and more hidden levels to deal with the problem. Thus there is a difference between the kind of relationship of power between teacher and student which takes the opportunity to deploy effects of domination and authoritarianism, and the kind which uses mechanisms of power (such as those involved in the transmission of knowledge and assessment) to guide the students’ behaviour and knowledge in useful and helpful ways, while still retaining a respect for the students’ freedom.

There has been a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater in attempting to negotiate this dilemma in the contemporary era, an era marked by complex and conflicting forces of social and cultural globalisation. Thus, in the interests of fostering tolerance and social harmony, the claim is made that anything goes – everybody has a right to their opinion, no matter what that might be. But this position of absolute tolerance, paradoxically, can foster the tolerance of injustice and intolerance itself. It is very easy to nobly tolerate certain injustices when one is not at the receiving end, and when they don’t directly impinge on one’s own existence.

With thanks to Kelli McGraw for raising interesting questions which provoked this post.

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