Tag: resistance

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.

Foucault, an optimistic thinker

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com
See here for additional discussion.

Didier Eribon: On vous dit assez pessimiste. A vous entendre je vous croirais plutôt optimiste?
Il y a un optimisme qui consiste à dire: de toute façon, ça ne pouvait pas être mieux. Mon optimisme consisterait plutôt à dire: tant de choses peuvent être changées, fragiles comme elles sont, liées à plus de contingences que de necessités, à plus d’arbitaire que d’évidence, à plus de contigences historieques complexes mais passagères qu’à des constances anthropologiques inévitables.

Michel Foucault, (1994) [1981] ‘Est-il donc important de penser?’ In Dits et Ecrits vol. IV. Paris: Gallimard, p. 182.

Didier Eribon: You are said to be rather pessimistic. Listening to you, though, I get the impression that you are something of an optimist instead.
There is an optimism that consists in saying, “In any case, it couldn’t be any better.” My optimism would consist in saying, “So many things can be changed, being as fragile as they are, tied more to contingencies than to necessities, more to what is arbitrary than to what is rationally established, more to complex but transitory historical contigencies than to inevitable anthropological constants…”

Michel Foucault, (2000) [1981] ‘ So is it important to think? ‘. In J. Faubion (ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Power The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume Three. New York: New Press, p. 458.

Random thoughts in response

Foucault has frequently been accused of being a destructive and dangerous nihilist. There are a number of reasons for these accusations. The first perhaps, is that he offers a point of view on political and social action that diverges from the positions of those making the accusation. On the doctrinaire Left, he is seen as a nihilist because he doesn’t have a grand schema of revolutionary action or of desirable personal identities that can offer a solution to any and all social problems. The claim is that this gives people nothing to aspire to and they can only sink into despairing inaction.

On the doctrinaire Right, he is a nihilist because he radically questions the existing status quo and suggests that existing structures of power and authority might not be all sweetness and light and have the best interests of everybody at heart.

But if one is prepared to leave such partisan doctrines aside, Foucault’s work offers a whole range of possibilities. He systematically shows that structures and ideas we think are immutable have in fact changed over time and indeed haven’t always existed. He shows that the most miniscule of changes are important and that every person is in the position to effect some kind of change at some level in a highly complex social and cultural arrangement.

Foucault’s work is in fact endlessly optimistic. No matter how bad any situation is there are always possibilities for change, for making choices, no matter how restricted. A problem is simply an invitation to consider what might be done, what strategies can be employed to create even a subtle shift. At present, the tendency is to create social and cultural relations that are more and more legally and bureaucratically restrictive, tied down with endless rules and regulations. The game becomes a quest to find the loopholes, the points of weakness, the empty spaces that are not covered by these networks of regulation.

Admittedly, in the current historical situation this quest for loopholes of freedom is becoming more and more difficult – and I am thinking of my own local institutional space which is the university. But times have always been hard. As Foucault points out there is no such thing as a golden age when all was rosy. Perhaps current difficulties are no more than an incentive to think harder about where those heterotopic spaces might be found and an invitation to have the courage to seek them out, set up new alliances and not succumb to the temptations of power and status which the institution appears so enticingly to offer (for a price). As Pierre Bourdieu has so acutely observed, institutions count on their members buying into their exclusionary hierarchies, taking the gamble that they might be rewarded with entry into that exclusive and miniscule club of people who manage to get to the top.

Cornelius Castoriadis points out that all social institutions have a tendency to be totalising. It’s more efficient, and human populations can be messy and disorganised. But it is only because people resist and object to these totalising tendencies in all sorts of ways that means that existence is not absolutely intolerable. But resistance needs to happen. Individual stands need to be taken against cultures of fear and the seductions of power – even if those stands are quite obscure and quite mundane, a laugh in the tearoom or at a staff meeting perhaps, a failure to fill in some tedious form.

This is where Foucault’s optimism comes in. There is always room for movement somewhere. Reading his work is a constant and encouraging reminder of this.

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.