Michel Foucault: Power and struggle | Daily News

Michel Foucault: Power and struggle

From 1975 to 1978, Foucault gave lectures on pastoral power, biopower and the genealogy of the Western state. Some of the material for these lectures was incorporated into the first volume of L’Histoire de la sexualité (1976); other material is related to themes that are treated in the many essays and articles that Foucault wrote in the late 1970s. Foucault’s later lectures – “On the Government of the Living” (1979–80), “The Hermeneutics of the Subject” (1981–82), and “The Government of Self and Others” (1982–84) – served, in part, as research material for the final three volumes of L’Histoire de la sexualité.

Michel Foucault’s early life was marked decisively by the Second World War. Asked by an interviewer in 1978 why he decided to become a philosopher, Foucault replied: “We did not know when I was ten or eleven whether we would become German or remain French. We did not know whether we would die or not in the bombing”. By the time he was sixteen, Foucault “knew only one thing”: that school life would provide him with “an environment protected from exterior threats”.

To this, Foucault added that knowledge “functions as a protection of individual existence and as a comprehension of the exterior world”. Knowledge is “a means of surviving by understanding”.

In 1946 Foucault gained admission to the École Normale Supérieure. Awarded a degree in psychopathology in 1952, he worked for two years with psychiatric patients at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne in Paris, where he continued to study psychology. During this time he also helped to translate Ludwig Binswanger’s Traum und Existenz – for which he wrote a long introduction.

History of madness

In 1953 and 1954, Foucault taught psychology at the University of Lille, and published his first books: a book on mental illness and a short work tracing the history of psychology from 1850 to 1950. Occupying the position of director of the Maison de France in Uppsala in the mid-1950s, he began research for a history of madness in the West that would become his primary thesis at the Sorbonne.

After spending a year at the University of Warsaw, where he was tasked with re-opening the university’s Centre of French Civilization, Foucault served briefly as director of the French Institute in Hamburg. He accepted a position as lecturer in psychology at the University of Clermont-Ferrand in 1960, and received his doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1961. His Folie et déraison was also published in 1961, and the publication of Naissance de la clinique and Raymond Roussel followed two years later.

And by 1966, with the extraordinary success of Les mots et les choses, Foucault had become a leading intellectual in France. In September of that same year, he left France to teach at the University of Tunis, then returning in 1968 to take up the position of Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vincennes. In 1969, L’archéologie du savoir appeared.

In 1970 Foucault was awarded a prestigious chair at the Collège de France. Every year thereafter until his death in 1984 (with the exception of a sabbatical year), Foucault gave lectures on themes connected to his research. Among the earlier lectures (all of which are translated into English), “Penal Theories and Institutions” (1971–72), “The Punitive Society” (1972–73), “Psychiatric Power” (1973–74), and “Abnormal” (1974–75) are related to research that led to the publication of Surveiller et punir in 1975.

Fragmentary nature

From 1975 to 1978, Foucault gave lectures on pastoral power, biopower and the genealogy of the Western state. Some of the material for these lectures was incorporated into the first volume of L’Histoire de la sexualité (1976); other material is related to themes that are treated in the many essays and articles that Foucault wrote in the late 1970s. Foucault’s later lectures – “On the Government of the Living” (1979–80), “The Hermeneutics of the Subject” (1981–82), and “The Government of Self and Others” (1982–84) – served, in part, as research material for the final three volumes of L’Histoire de la sexualité.

The lectures reveal the various themes and preoccupations in Foucault’s work in the 1970s and 80s; they also help to contextualize many of the changes in his thought. Still, it is difficult to characterize Foucault’s work.

He often denied that he was a theorist, by which he meant someone who works within an overarching system. Describing himself as an experimenter, Foucault frequently underscored the tentative and fragmentary nature of his research. His work is also anti-systematic in the sense that it explores the logic of specific mechanisms, technologies and strategies of power. This exploration requires that close attention be paid to historical conditions whose singularity defies subsumption under a universal history. But Foucault’s antipathy towards systematic thought also meant that he enthusiastically pursued new directions in his research (his later study of care of the self in ancient Greece and Hellenistic Rome is a case in point), and he readily acknowledged the disparities between his earlier and later work.

Foucault’s books and lectures are highly original histories that centre on power relations, including the struggles that have been waged, and that continue to be waged, against prevailing forms of power by individuals and groups in different sites. In other words, Foucault’s view of history highlights the antagonisms, conflicts and struggles that rend it, and for this reason, Foucault openly acknowledged his debt to Karl Marx.

Power relations

However, rather than examining the economic forces that have shaped Western history, Foucault studied power relations in both institutional settings and the modern state. As he noted in interviews, his interest in power was grounded in his experiences of the Second World War: it was the twin threats of fascism and Stalinism that led Foucault to focus on power relations and on the types of knowledge that these relations invariably spawned.

What, then, are power relations? Adopting a view of power that owes much to Friedrich Nietzsche, Foucault contends that power relations consist in a play of forces in which one force relates to another by attempting to bring it under its influence or control (from benign activities, such as teaching someone how to do something, to more malign activities involving coercion). When one force proves weaker than the other, the stronger force will be able to direct its conduct “in a fairly constant manner and with reasonable certainty”. By extension, the stronger force will also shape the identity of the weaker force. However, since power is exercised everywhere, Foucault insisted that struggle, too, is ubiquitous. Society consists in “a perpetual and multiform struggle” because “power relations necessarily incite, constantly call for and open up the possibility of resistance”.

- Times Literary Supplement


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