One of Foucault’s central concerns, and a theme that runs through his diverse writings, was the nature of power.
Foucault, as Cletus the Foetus ably discusses above and in his writeup on power, conceived of power not as a possession - it is "never in anyone's hands" - but as something that circulates through people: "individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application". Foucault used the metaphors of nets and capillaries to describe the dispersed yet ubiquitous distribution of power through the social fabric.
In Foucault's view, power is exercised in relationships between individuals, each of whom has some possibility of action. The exercise of power by one does not erase the other's freedom
: "the other must always be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts". Though in any particular instance one person may have greater potential for "guiding the possibility of conduct and putting in order the possible outcome", "resistance is always possible".
As one of Foucault's more gnomic and seemingly counter-intuitive statements puts it: "Where there is power, there is resistance".
Foucault's researches focused on the ways in which human beings in the west are subjects of and subject to power. Foucault's introduction to his History of Sexuality (a.k.a. Volume 1), for example, showed how the development in the last few centuries of scientific discourses like psychiatry and medicine defined and categorized people as healthy or deviant. Discursive power is productive: it creates the very categories of individuals of which it speaks, by speaking of them; it is the condition of their possibility. Discursive power is disciplinary: elaborate techniques are devised for divining the aberrant - the homosexual, the hysterical female, the masturbating child - who are then subject to disciplinary measures like incarceration, surgery, and drugging. Individuals are encouraged to turn a disciplinary gaze inward to scrutinize and define themselves; abnormal individuals are exhorted to confess, to speak about their deviance and repent, to render their selves into discourse. All these forces, internal and external to the individual, can be seen as forces of subjectivization: the creation of the subject.
One criticism of Foucault is that his conception of power and subjectivity leaves us trapped in the prison house of language. There is no way to speak, to write, which is not engaging us in discourses of power and knowledge.
Is it possible to be, to speak, to act, in a way which can "free" us?
Teresa de Lauretis explores the semiotic and historical construction of women's subjectivity, yet extends her discussion beyond language to "that complex of habits, dispositions, associations and perceptions, which en-genders one as female", grounding subjectivization in a
"place", a "body". From this space women can engage in "that political, theoretical, self-analyzing practice" by which they re-articulate their social relations from their historical experience. Historical experience supplies "the horizon of meanings and knowledges available in a culture at given historical moments" and thus gives rise to identity, but the subject reinterprets and reconstructs this horizon through reflective practice. This active reinterpretation and reconstruction supposes that the individual has agency; they can act. To Foucault's subject of and subject to power, then, we can add de Lauretis' subject "in the active sense of maker as well as user of culture, intent on self-determination and self-definition". Thus we can break out of the prison of language - both by allowing for agency and by drawing attention to the bodily, habitual aspects of power - dispositions, in Pierre Bourdieu's terminology.
Towards the end of his life, Foucault began to explore some of this ground through an examination of what he called technologies of the self, which exist alongside technologies of production, signs, and power. Technologies of the self, or “operations” which individuals effect “on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being”, allow people “to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality”. In the second volume of his History of Sexuality, Foucault related how his researches had been motivated by curiosity – “not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself...to think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees". In the third volume, his last completed work, he distinguished pleasure dependent on an outside object from that which resulted from turning inward; the former he characterized as "precarious...undermined by the fear of loss...violent, uncertain, and conditional", while the latter seemed to him "capable of providing a form of pleasure that comes, in serenity and without fail, of the experience of oneself". These formulations go beyond his discussion in the first volume of the History of the "spirals of pleasure and power" which individuals experience from the exercise and the evasion of power, and suggest possibilities for engaging with and changing the self in ways not fully structured by dominant discursive practices. In Foucault's later formulations I discern traces of de Lauretis' actively reinterpreting subject, working within the constraints of history and society, but seeking beyond these limits to the possible. "I believe," Foucault said in an interview, "in the freedom of individuals".
It comforts me to think that this great man, this startlingly original thinker who has certainly given me much that is good to think with, found, at a time when he was dying, the possibility for serene pleasure in self-knowledge.
My Foucault quotations are taken from the three volumes of The History of Sexuality, as well as Technologies of the Self and the essay "The Subject and Power" (in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, edited by H. L. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow). I draw on Teresa de Lauretis' introduction to Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, and her brilliant but difficult book, Alice Doesn't.
Fun quote from Michel Foucault: "I consider myself a crypto-Marxist." (in Technologies)