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Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Subject and Power- Michel Foucault

the following is a write up on 'The Subject and Power' by Nidhi V. Krishnan

In the essay, “The Subject and Power”, Michel Foucault explores and investigates the relations of power. He states that when a human subject is placed in relations of production, he is equally placed in complex power relations. Foucault clarifies that it is not power, but the subject which is the theme of his research. However, he wishes to access the subject by exploring the intricacies of the relations of power. He states that there is a scarcity of good instruments and tools to study (understand and analyze) power. Foucault points out that in order to facilitate a good critical conceptualization of power, historical awareness of the present conditions is required along with the knowledge of the type of reality that one is dealing with.

Foucault demonstrates that an abstract investigation of “reason” is not useful in ascertaining conceptual clarity about the relations of power because it will mislead us into the deadlock of the debate between rationalism and irrationalism. In his opinion, investigating the general reason of the Enlightenment will also not allow for the conceptualization of power. Instead, he proposes that we should look at the rationalities in specific fields in terms of fundamental experiences, for example, looking at specific instances of madness, illness, death, crime, sexuality etc. He states that the investigation of the forms of resistance can also be used to reveal power relations.

Foucault elucidates the characteristics of anti-authority struggles: 1. The struggles are transversal and hence not confined to a particular geography, economy of political form of government. 2. The aim of the struggles is to combat the effects of power. 3. The struggles are “immediate” in that they do not locate the “chief enemy” but look for the immediate enemy i.e., criticize instances of power which are closest to them. 4. The struggles question the status of the individual. 5. The struggles are an opposition to the effects of power that are linked to knowledge, competence, and qualification and also an opposition against secrecy, deformation and mystifying representations imposed on people. 6. The struggles revolve around the question: Who are we?

Foucault states that the main objective of class struggle is to attack not the opposing class or institutions of power but rather to attack a technique or form of power. Foucault asserts that this form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life, categorizes the individual and thereby makes the individuals subjects. Foucault advances two meanings of the “subject”: subject to someone by control and dependence and subject tied to one’s own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. However, both these meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to. Foucault categorizes struggles into three types: 1. Struggle against forms of domination. 2. Struggle against forms of exploitation. 3. Struggle against subjection, forms of subjectivity and submission.

Foucault asserts that the struggles of subjection are caused because of the fact that the modern state is similar to the new form of pastoral power. Pastoral power can be characterized as follows: 1. Its ultimate objective is to assure salvation in next world. 2. It is potentially sacrificial in the sense that it is prepared to sacrifice itself for benefit of the masses. 3. It practices life-long individualizing of its subjects 4. It holds the knowledge about the conscience of people and possesses the ability to control it.

Pastoral power therefore produces and reproduces the truth of the individual through the manipulation of people’s conscience. The new form of pastoral power spread throughout social field while being regulated by state. The characteristics of the new form of pastoral power were as follows: 1. The objective was changed from salvation in the next world to salvation in this world. Health, well-being, security, protection against accidents etc. were endorsed as the components of salvation in this world. 2. There was an increase in the agents and officials of pastoral power. 3. The development of the knowledge of man was encouraged around two roles: globalizing and quantitative, concerning the population and analytical, concerning the individual. Hence, pastoral power that had been initially liked to religious institutions spread out to the entire social body as it found support in a multitude of institutions.

Foucault declares that the reason why it is difficult for a subject to break away from ideology is because of the political structure of the state. Foucault affirms that the state uses a tricky combination of individualization as well as totalizing procedures to trap the subject in a “double bind”, making it extremely difficult for the subject to overcome any form of subjection. Foucault asserts that the solution to the problem is not to liberate the individual from the state (and it apparatuses and institutions) alone but to liberate the individual both from the state as well as the form of individualization that is linked to the state. Foucault is in favour of exploring the possibilities of new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of both the subjectivity as well as individuality imposed by the state and its institutions.

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