Beyond the Repressive Hypothesis: Power as Power

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15The economy of powerI would like to suggest another way to go furthertowards a new economy of power relations, a waywhich is more empirical, more directly related to ourpresent situation, and which implies more relationsbetween theory and practice.

Michel Foucault, 1982Beyond the repressive hypothesis: Power as power/knowledgeFoucault never attempts any (impossible) definition of power. At best, he gives a definition ofpower relations in an essay published in 1982:The exercise of power is not simply a relationship between partners, individual or collective; it is a way inwhich certain actions modify others. Which is to say, of course, that something called Power, with orwithout a capital letter, which is assumed to exist universally in a concentrated or diffused form, does notexist.

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Therefore, Foucauldian definition of power is drawn in opposition with the repressivehypothesis (Foucault, 1971) which holds that there is a transcendental reason which can beexercised independently of any power relationship. Precisely because it is transcendental, reasonis then universally compelling. It can limit the political power field and has therefore a role inopposing domination (ie when political power goes beyond its rights).

Foucault draws the genealogy of this hypothesis advocating two reasons for its appearance inhistory(Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1982:130). On a first hand, because of what he calls thespeakers benefit , the mere fact that, by advocating such a hypothesis, the speaker placeshimself out of power and within truth. However, this is not the main argument of Foucault as hemust recognise that, not as an archaeologist but as a genealogist, he is himself in a field of powerrelations. On a second hand, because:modern power is tolerable on the condition that it masks itselfwhich it has done very effectively. If truthis outside of and opposed to power, then the speakers benefit is merely an incidental plus. But if truth and16power are not external to each other, as Foucault will obviously maintain, then the speakers benefit andassociated ploys are among the essential ways in which power operates. It masks itself by producing adiscourse, seemingly opposed to it but really part of a larger deployment of modern power.

An additional, more technical, reason should be added, which is that talking about atranscendental reason means falling again in the contradictions of modernity (see part 1).

Therefore, Foucault prefers considering rationality as a kind of rationality and study howseveral kinds of rationalities could emerge in history (see part 2). However, considering theemergence of a kind of rationality presupposes that the field of possible knowledge is tightlylinked with an empirical field:I think we must limit the sense of the word rationalisation to an instrumental and relative use and tosee how forms of rationalisation become embodied in practices, or systems of practices (Foucault, 1980:47)If reason is reduced to an instrumental, relative reason embodied in an empirical field ofpractices, then the field of reason, at a determined time in a certain place is a field of discursiveformations. Hence the two following consequences:1) Because of its instrumentality, a form of reason as well as any form of knowledge define a setof possible practices and is thus an instrument of power.

2) Because it is embodied in an empirical field, a form of reason (or any form of knowledgesupported by it) has ontologically no being beyond any set of practices. Therefore, because ofthe former consequence, the field of knowledge defines a field of power and vice-versa.

Therefore, power is not to be considered as opposite to reason; but on the contrary as thenecessary condition for the construction of knowledge. Moreover, because power producesknowledge, it can be, at least partially, grasped by archaeology:These power-knowledge relations are to be analysed, therefore, not on the basis of a subject of knowledgewho is or is not free in relation to power, but, on the contrary, the subject who knows, the objects to beknown and the modalities of knowledge must be regarded as so many effects of these fundamentalimplications of power-knowledge and their historical transformations. (Foucault, 1977)17A deterministic economy of power ?Foucaults aim is to establish a genealogy of how power is exercised in our society basing hisanalysis on an archaeology of the discursive formations. Hence, his analysis is aimed toward themodes of functioning of power in our society. Therefore, his objective is less to mirror theterrain, than to give tools to use it (Gilles Deleuze, 1985). As he put it in 1978 and in 1979 at theCollege de France his work on power relations have a tactic and a practical aim:If there is an imperative in my lesson, then this is a tactical one: if you want to fight, here are someguidelines lignes de force , … I will expose tactical directions. (Foucault, 1978. I translated the text)All the elements Foucault exposes cannot then constitute a system of power . Because oftheir very nature they shape at best an economy of power. The questions he deals with are not:What is power ? What is the general system of power ? Or even: how is power exercised in suchor such institution ? But rather: What are the main characteristics of power relations in oursociety today ? How did they appeared ? On what rationality are they sustained ?In spite of the practical goals of his analysis, Foucault has been broadly criticised by hisadversaries on the backdoor determinism inherent to his conception of power (Alvesson, 1996;Giddens, 1985; Reed, 1998). As Giddens wrote it:… Foucault is mistaken insofar as he regards maximised disciplinary power of this sort as expressing thegeneral nature of administrative power within the modern state. Prisons, asylums and other locales inwhich individuals are kept entirely sequestered from the outside… have to be regarded as having specialcharacteristics that separate them off rather distinctively from other modern organisations … The impositionof disciplinary power outside contexts of enforced sequestration tends to be blunted by the very real andconsequential countervailing power which those subject to it can, and do, develop. (Giddens, 1985:pp185-6)Such a critique is particularly serious as it reproaches Foucault to have totally missed thepoint of what he claimed to study. If Foucauldian analysis of power both is deterministic andcannot be extrapolated from the institutions he studied, then his whole project of giving tactical18directions must be considered as a failure. Therefore, two questions are prompted, which issuesmay determine Foucaults relevance: first, does his analysis of power lead to deterministicconclusions ? Second, to what extent is his choice of studying special institutions relevant ?Replying to the first question means not examining only the rhetoric aspects in Foucault. Hisdense and nervous style may lead one to feel that there is no room for agency freedom, and thatFoucault is then unable to distinguish between open doors and brick walls (Smith, 1991).

However, if we refer to the way he defines power relations in his essay The subject andPower (1982), it appears that power relations are set between two limits.

First, its upper limit is that a power relation is not a direct action on a person, but an actionupon other actions. Therefore,The exercise of power consists in guiding the possibility of conduct and putting in order the possibleoutcome (Foucault, 1982)Although the exercise of power may need violence or consent, these are not inherent to apower relation. Moreover, one of the consequences of this limit to power (which the critics didnot seem to notice) is that resistance is the sine qua non condition for power. Indeed, a powerrelation, is not an action which determines another action, but an action which influences an otheraction by determining a field of possibility for it. In this field of possibility, ways of resisting areby definition present.

The second limit set to power relations, therefore, is fight. According to Foucault, the goal of afight is either to force the opponent to abandon the game (hence a victory which dissolves thepower relation) or to set up a new relation of power. In other words, there is a circularitybetween power relations open to fight and a fight aiming at power relations. Therefore there is aconstant instability in a power relationship which excludes by definition any form ofdeterminism. By stressing the ontological link between power and resistance, Foucault theninvites us to an undeterministic reading of the mechanisms of power he highlights. Evenpanopticist power is to be understood then as a form of power, though inquisitory and totalizing,that is perpetually confronted with potential (and some time actual) resistance.

This leads us to the next question, which is about the relevance of drawing general conclusionsfrom the type of institutions Foucault studied. I think the main point which led Foucault to studyinstitutions as the hospital, the asylum or the prison was precisely because of his assumptionthat modern legal power may be best studied where it generates the more resistance. As he putsit:My way of studying power relations consists of taking the forms of resistance against different forms ofpower as a starting point. To use another metaphor, it consists of using this resistance as a chemicalcatalyst so as to bring to light power relations, locate their position, find out the point of application andthe methods used. Rather than analysing power from the point of view of its internal rationality, it consistsof analysing power relations through the antagonism of strategies.

For example to find out what our society means by sanity, perhaps we should investigate what is happeningin the field of insanity.

And what we mean by legality in the field of illegality (Foucault, 1982)By drawing a genealogy of the prison, Foucault could then be able to characterise some of thefeatures of modern power relations which are disciplinary, economic, individualizing, inquisitorial,normative and curative. In a word, subjectifying. However, this does not mean that Foucauldiananalysis is doomed to see only these features of power. In his genealogical account of the punitivepractices, he draws other forms of power relations, especially those (now absent in our westernmodern societies) in relation with the surplus power possessed by the king (Foucault, 1977). Iwould then be extremely interested in a Foucauldian history of the factory and the dynamics ofworkplace trade unionism in British industries as the one announced by Alan McKinlay (1998).

At the condition, of course, that besides the use of Foucauldian concepts, this work beFoucauldian by its approach to history (genealogical and archaeological).

But there is still a final analytical question. Can an analysis la Foucault account for theexistence of the institutions in which the power relations occur ? And if yes, then how and towhat extent ?

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