Power: Breaking the Liberal Domination-Resistance Paradigm

Theories of power previous to Foucault were largely based in terms of sovereign or juridical power – roughly equivalent to the dynastic power of the monarch and the legal power of the social contract.  The sovereign view of power imagines power as an original right held by the king to which the subject responds.  As the state form emerged, power arrangements were recast according to a social contract that posits citizen-subjects that are afforded a minor autonomy that both limits and authorizes the power of government.  While most political and social theory is stuck within these two types of power, Foucault emphasized two forms of power that he argues have displaced the importance of sovereign and juridical power: disciplinary power and biopower.  In disciplinary power, the human body is taken as a site of power whose capacities can be maximized by careful examination and training vis-à-vis experts and the human sciences.  The docile yet productive bodies of the student, prisoner, soldier, and worker are the site of intensive investments of power, as colorfully exhibited in the pages of Discipline and Punish.  In the middle of the 19th century, the logic of discipline was intensified and its scope expanded from exclusive groups to populations more generally – combining and multiplying the control of individual bodies with the control of populations as social bodies.  This ‘biopower’ is exhibited predominantly in an explosion over the study and management of reproduction but is also expressed in public health, migration, housing, and maybe most dramatically: the two world wars, the threat of nuclear annihilation, genocide, and the Holocaust.

Though always present in his analysis, resistance is a strange category for Foucault. Disciplinary and biopolitical power provide difficult terrain for resistance in that they don’t work on the coercion-freedom continuum of sovereign or juridical power.  On one hand Foucault is trying to avoid the power-resistance opposition characteristic of liberalism.  But on the other hand, he provides short clarifying remarks about resistance in both his books (D&P 23-31, HOS 92-98) and in a number of articles and interviews.  By far the most quoted phrase made by Foucault on resistance is found in History of Sexuality Volume 1, “where there is power, there is resistance” (95).  And while in the explanation that proceeds, Foucault is extremely clear that the phrase is not to be taken in terms of sovereign or juridical power, it often gets read that way.  Sovereign-juridical readings would argue that power is a coercive imposition of force that leaves subjects the choice of either passively submitting (coercion) or actively responding (freedom).  Biopower, however, operates by capturing and re-mobilizing expressions of freedom.  Reverting to sovereign or juridical forms of resistance is largely non-responsive to the new form of control and at best only indirectly limits its use.  Rather than operating from above, biopower’s aim is to identify, encourage, develop, and channel clashes of power like the juridical conflict between citizen and state in order to direct them toward favorable state ends. The state relies on resistance for two reasons: first, to legitimize its governance, whether via educating the public or maintaining the police and military; and secondly to make adjustments, seeking feedback on how to refine current techniques or identifying new targets to capture.  In its most extreme form, biopolitical states seek out or provoke crises in order to manage them.  And in that case, merely engaging the state, even to resist its influence, may ultimately grant it enough authority to overcome you, like in the case of homo oeconomicus.

To sharpen the focus even more on the contemporary moment, Deleuze’s text “Postscript on the Societies of Control” examines the modulations of power in the latter half of the 20th century.  The subjects that resisted standardization of Fordist capitalism – the usual cast of 60s counter-culture types like hippies and dropouts – used their deviance to strike at the normalizing disciplinary techniques that worked to make them a productive cogs in the machine.  Neo-liberalism is a response to this proliferation of difference.  It doesn’t fit subjects into pre-ordained roles, but instead capitalizes on them by monitoring, intensifying, and promoting emerging trends that can be put to use while devalorizing or disciplining the select few that are too challenging or risky to let alone.  The deviant or even resistant New Age gurus who taught enlightened ways to resist the cookie-cutter banality of 1950s America didn’t create a class of consumer-resistant disciples but instead unleashed a who slew of unfelt desires that capitalists were more than happy to fulfill with new markets and commodities.  Care to indulge your romantic longing for the long lost 60s?  You could lob a brick through a window, but wouldn’t it be easier to grab some tickets to the next Bob Dylan concert?

For control, the importance of disciplinary techniques isn’t reduced but is intensified through generalization and diffusion.  The walls of previously well-demarcated sites of discipline – the factory, the school, the barracks, the church, the family – become more porous and start resonating according the same frequency, extending and economizing their grip.  What looks like relative amounts of freedom is actually a refinement of the efficiency of control; less training and discipline is needed in the factory if it was already imparted at school, or better yet, the work is done by the subject if they are a homo oeconomicus who is constantly expanding individual ‘freedom’ by economizing all aspects of their life.


  1. Great post. I do want to share how it is useful to be concerned about language when we refer to ‘power’. We know that for Foucault ‘power’ was just one aspect of his genealogical/epistemological investigations: his theory of it was though just a temporal bridge between his work on discoursiveness and on what he finally developed in terms of modes of subjection, the care of the self etc. If there were several ‘Foucaults’ (there are at least 3, Foucault the genealogist, Foucault the theorist of power, and Foucault the parrhesist ) it’s not easy to refer to one of them without bringing one or both of the others. Foucault was pretty aware that theorizing about power would always mean a certain reification/substantialization of the word: and in this sense, there is no way to refer to ‘power’ in foucaultian terms without ascribing its relation with knowledge. To this point, when we talk about power we actually are talking of knowledge as its primal form, and this is crucial for understanding Foucault’s philosophy. For instance -though it is clear that it is just a way to put it: to say ‘disciplinary power’, is not to say ‘knowledge’, at the end of the day? For Foucault ‘power’ is exercised by and among bodies, and this means certain knowledge of which relation can be embodied or not, depending on how power is exercised and situated. Is not great how Foucualt refers to the ‘exam’ as a disciplinary mechanism that would covert knowledge in power? The relation between power and knowledge cannot be left without mention, if we want to advance a broader view of Foucault’s philosophical/political preoccupations.

    1. Naxos,

      First, thank you so much for the thoughtful response. I agree in your description of Foucault’s work, especially that it can be roughly broken down into periods (Foucault’s early work on science and knowledge, his middle period of power, and the latter period that goes back to the Ancients). However, I would claim that knowledge, while having an importance, is not like an all pervading medium by which everything occurs. Rather, knowledge is ‘the epistemological method’ Foucault employs to ‘understand’ the relations of bodies. If we were to take a strictly materialist position, it might show that the knowledge created by various dispositifs is internally necessary for their function (a classification system of mental illness is necessary for the proper functioning of the clinic), but that is a queer form of knowledge. And, if we were to go back to Order of Things or the Archaeology, we might find that “understanding” the knowledge of a previous dispositif to be incredibly difficult, and would have a very strange import into our own episteme.

      In the three-part lectures series at the College de France on governance (SMBD, STP, BOB), we get a clear picture of knowledge production as it relates to governmental practices. In SMBD it begins with a mythological form of governance tied to Divine transcendence that faces secular challenges which give birth to early liberalism. It is followed up by STP, which gives a history of the governmentality triplet (the archiac Christian pastorate, late medieval military-diplomatic techniques, and early modern forms of population management), and the regime of truth-speaking necessary for its development. And finally in BOB, we get a fully-integrated political economics mediated through the legislating citizen as they transforms into self-regulating homo economici. [consider this excerpt from BOB: https://anarchistwithoutcontent.wordpress.com/2011/09/18/truth-and-verediction-how-to-construct-a-speaking-subject-even-if-that-subject-is-money-or-the-market/ ]

      What I consider to be the most pressing concerns are not the anthropological question, which would be a conservative lament for “the human” as it is transformed under this new style of governance (oh, the inhumanity of modern life!). Rather, I am most concerned with the offshoots of the assemblages constructed to do the management: the internet being the most profound example. Hardt and Negri, for instance, argue that The Common is the most recent manifestation of late capitalism, as if it is a substance that will quickly gain consistency and therefore open an avenue for side-stepping capitalism, but I am a bit more pessimistic. What are your thoughts?


  2. Thanks for your reply. I want to emphasize that my previous comment was more like indicating the problem of reification when we refer to ‘power’, that’s why I brought the importance of knowledge in Foucault’s work. I think that Foucault’s work should be considered retrospectively, say like implying the genealogical view -the one he implied himself to his own work-. So the first Foucault is fundamental, from the History of madness to his Nietzsche, Genealogy and History, including of course his other master pieces, mostly The Order of Things, Archaeology of Knowledge, and The Order of Discourse. In all this period, which endured more than 10 years, the idea of knowledge is his prime concern: these 5 oeuvres are Foucault’s vertebral column and show its own consistency and continuity. Though it was somehow a latent topic, it was not but until The History of Sexuality I (the will to knowledge), that he would theorize about power. But the things he actually did with the notion of knowledge are the base of all this further theorization.

    What he did with the notion, methodologically and epistemologically speaking, is a bit more than what you have referred, so my present comment would try to complement and recall the importance of this aspect in that respect. In the Order of things, for instance, it is just admirable how he extracts the notion of ‘episteme’ by tracing a transversal line between linguistics, economy and biology, constituting the ‘knowledge of the epoch’ that he analyses etc. In this sense, the notion of ‘episteme’ means knowledge as a sedimentation in history, or in other words, a stratification. In Archeology of knowledge he extends all this implication in terms of discourse and the importance of enunciation, where ‘truth’ is just a vector allowed by the sedimented knowledge of determined epoch (the episteme) etc. In the Order of discourse he synthesizes systematically all these historical implications of knowledge etc, but it is until Surveiller et punir that he makes the analytical passage from ‘knowledge’ to ‘power’ -as he focus his research in the disciplinary mechanisms (institutional) that form and mold the bodies etc. It is not a discontinuity at all that his take on sexuality would imply power in a more specific way than knowledge, but then again, for him ‘knowledge is power’ (or to better put in terms of sexuality, ‘knowing’ is power’ etc). So, the notion of knowledge is the magma with which Foucault worked until the end of his days: is not the care of the self implying the knowledge of ourselves, the exercise of courage and frankness?

    All this roughly put, of course, but with this regard, I truly think that the least we can do while we want to refer to ‘power’ in terms of Foucault, is to background it admittedly to all what he did with the notion of knowledge (and to have clear in which sense they are related or mutually implied): a notion which is not a bad parameter to account the trajectory of his thought within all his consistencies, continuities, fractures and crises: a measure that would avoid the reification of the word ‘power’ in our own politics-related theorizations.

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