Before looking at the actual essay, a brief history of the term “the subject” might be useful. In grammar, it is whatever carries out the predicate of a sentence: “I ate cake,” and so on. This is not quite how philosophers have used the term. The most relevant sense of “subject” comes from Kant. For Kant, thinking is a matter of linking intuitions (what we might call the empirical) and concepts. Intuitions just give us a mass of jumbled perceptions, and concepts, in concert with these intuitions, present us with an ordered world. The subject is what carries out this synthesis; each of our statements or perceptions can be prefaced with “I. . .”, as in “I think cake is delicious” or “I see a table.” Because this activity is carried out “behind” or “before” any actual thinking, this subject is transcendental. The important thing is the subject is universal; individual or cultural differences are accidents. Because it is a transcendental subject, that is, because it comes before experience or thought, it stands behind class, gender, and culture without being affected by them.
For Foucault, the subject is something entirely different. It is not a substance, it is not transcendental, and it is not inborn. The “I. . .” that we can preface every statement with is something that is formed under particular historical conditions by a process he calls subjectification. The engine of subjectification is what he calls power, and his basic project is to study how subjects are formed by various kinds of power relations.
Why Study Power? The Question of the Subject
Foucault begins by saying the object of all his work has been to create a history of the different modes by which humans are made subjects. He has dealt with three different modes.
First are the modes of inquiry that call themselves sciences, such as linguistics, economics, or biology. Second, he has studied “dividing practices”. People are either divided within themselves or divided from others—for example, the mad vs the sane, the sick vs the healthy, and criminals vs “good boys”. Finally, his most current issue is how the human being turns themselves into subjects—for example, how humans learn to recognize themselves as subjects of sexuality.
He thinks political theory has suffered from a gap; it is mostly concerned either with legal models, to answer questions like what legitimates power, or models based on institutions, to answer questions like what is the state. The definition of power needs to be expanded in order to understand the objectivizing of the subject.
Power is not just a theoretical question, but also one of experience. For example, the two most easily recognizable “pathological forms” of power are fascism and Stalinism. They are puzzling because, in spite of their historical uniqueness, they are not quite original—they used mechanisms already present in other societies (Arendt pointed out that denaturalization was a tool used by both totalitarian and non-totalitarian governments).
Since Kant, the role of philosophy has been to prevent reason from going beyond the limits of experience, but from the same time, the role of philosophy has been to keep watch over the excessive powers of political rationality, which is an awfully steep expectation. We cannot simply rely on reason to deal with excessive power relations, as Kant might have us do. We need more specific analyses about different things in different fields, such as madness, illness, death, crime, and sex. In other words, the project is about looking at specific rationalities rather than rationality in general. The Enlightenment was important, but he thinks we need to look at more “remote processes” if we want to understand how we have been trapped in our own history. He wants to suggest another way to go toward a new economy of power relations, “a way which is more empirical, more directly related to our present situation, and which implies more relations between theory and practice.”
It would take forms of resistance against power as a starting point, to use resistance to bring to light these relations: “Rather than analyzing power relations from the point of view of its internal rationality, it consists of analyzing power relations through the antagonism of strategies.” (780) For example: to find out what we mean by sanity, we should look at insanity. Or to learn about legality, look at illegality. To understand power relations, we should look at the forms of resistance and the attempts made to dissociate these relations. Some starting points are recent oppositions: opposition to the power of men over women, of parents over children, of psychiatry over the mentally ill, of medicine over the population, and of administration over the ways people live. It is not enough to say these are anti-authority struggles—he offers six other elements they have in common.
First, They are “transversal” struggles, that is, they do not take place in a single country. Second, the aim of the struggles is the effects of power. For example, the medical profession is not criticized for being profit-earning but because it exercises “an uncontrolled power over people’s bodies, their health, and their life and death.” (780) Third, they are “immediate” struggles. It is people criticizing the power which is closest to them. It is not about the “chief” enemy but the immediate enemy. They do not search for future solutions like revolutions. Fourth,
They are struggles which question the status of the individual: on the one hand, they assert the right to be different; and they underline everything which makes individuals truly individual. On the other hand, they attack everything which separates the individual, breaks his links with others, splits up community life, forces the individual back on himself, and ties him to his own identity in a constraining way. (781)
In other words, they are not struggles for or against individuality, but against the “government of individualization”. Fifth, “They are an opposition to the effects of power which are linked with knowledge, competence, and qualification: struggles against the privileges of knowledge.” (781) But just as much against secrecy, deformation, and mystifying representations imposed on people. This is not about scientism or relativism, but the way in which that knowledge circulates.
Finally, they all revolve around the question Who are we? They refuse abstractions, as well as economic and state violence which ignore who we are individually, and against scientifically or administratively imposed determinations of who one is. To sum up: it is not so much a struggle against a group, but against forms of power.
This kind of power applies to immediate everyday life: it categorizes the individual, marks him, and attaches him to an identity, and “imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him.” (781) It is a way to make people subjects. There are two meanings of the word “subject”: 1) being subject to control, and 2) being tied to one’s own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings involve a form of power “which subjugates and makes subject to.”
There are generally three types of struggles: First, against forms of domination (ethnic, social, religious). Second, against exploitation which separates individuals from what they produce, Third, against that which ties the individual to himself and submits him to others (so against subjection). You can see examples of all these struggles in history, though usually, one dominates over the others. For example, in feudal societies, struggle against ethnic and social domination were more obvious, though a fight against economic exploitation could have taken place.
In the 19th century, the fight against exploitation came into the foreground, while nowadays, the struggle against the forms of subjection is becoming more important. He thinks this is not the first time there has been a struggle against subjection; in the 15th and 16th centuries, struggles around the Reformation should be analyzed as a western crisis of subjectivity and a revolt against the religious and moral power it sprang from. “The need to take a direct part in spiritual life, in the work of salvation, in the truth which lies in the book—all that was a struggle for a new subjectivity.” (782)
Now, we could just say all these struggles are derivative of class or ideological structures. However, while the mechanisms of subjection cannot be studied outside of exploitation; but they are not the “terminal” of more fundamental mechanisms. “They entertain complex and circular relations with other forms.” (782)
The struggle against subjection is foregrounded in our time because since the 16th century, a new kind of political power has been developing: the state. Most of the time, the state is seen as something which ignores individuals, looking only at the totality, i.e. of classes or groups. This is true, but the state does not only totalize, it also individuates. He thinks that the state’s related techniques of totalization and individuation are especially closely related in our time, because the modern western state has integrated an old technique from Christian: the pastoral power.
It is often said that Christianity created a new ethic, but it also created a new form of power. Individuals could now “serve others” not only as princes, prophets, or teachers, but also as pastors. Pastoral power has four elements. First, its ultimate aim is individual salvation. Second, it not only commands, but also must be prepared to sacrifice itself. This makes it different from royal power, which only demands sacrifice from subjects. Third, it looks after the individual just as much as the community. Finally, this power can only be exercised by knowing the inside of people’s minds and souls (hence, the confessional). What pastoral power does is produce individuals.
While the church as an institution has lost much of its prestige and power, pastoral power itself has remained; it has moved into the hands of the state. The state isn’t an entity which ignores individuals; it is a structure in which individuals are integrated under the condition that individuality be set according to a specific pattern.
With this shift to the state, pastoral power has changed in several ways. First, it has changed its objective. It is no longer about salvation in the next life, but ensuring it in this world. Salvation now means health and well-being, security, and protection against accidents. Worldly aims took the place of heavenly ones. Second, the power of pastoral officials increased, because the power was exerted by a state apparatus. Remember that in the 18th century, the police were not only created to maintain law and order, but for organizing the “urban supplies, hygiene, health, and standards considered necessary for handicrafts and commerce.” (784) Third, the aims and agents of pastoral power focused on the development of man focussed on two roles: one globalizing and quantitative, concerning the population, and the other, analytical, concerning the individual. All this implies that pastoral power, once linked to defined religious institutions, spread out all across the social body.
Kant’s “What is Enlightenment” asked “What’s going on just now? What’ happening to us? What is this world, this period, this precise moment in which we are living?” (785) The question was what are we, as opposed to the Cartesian question, Who am I, as a unique but universal and unhistorical subject? That question of the historical subject took on more and more importance. “Universal philosophy” did not disappear, but the analysis of our present moment became more and more important. He thinks our present political project should not be to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are, to get past our double problem of power-rationalized individualization and the totalization of modern power structures.
How is Power Exercised?
He is trying to avoid reifying power as a substance, so he is sticking to what happens; how is power exercised, or what happens when one individual asserts power over others? We need to distinguish this power from the power that allows us to craft artefacts; that is a question of capacity. We also need to distinguish power from relationships of communication and signification. That is a way of acting upon others, “But the production and circulation of elements of meaning can have as their objective or as their consequence certain results in the realm of power: the latter are not simply an aspect of the former.” (786)
It is not that there is a field of technique, and then an order of meaning, and then that of inequality. Rather, the three relationships overlap one another and use each other. Techniques imply communication and are tied to power relations (for example, labor). Communication implies finalized activities, and modify relations between individuals. The coordination between the three relationships is neither uniform nor constant. There is not final equilibrium between finalized activities, systems of communication, and power relations. There are diverse forms, and circumstances in which they conform to a given model.
For example, in an educational institution, everything is organized; it “constitutes a block of capacity-communication-power.” (787) Blocks, which put the three elements into a formula, constitute “disciplines”. So the empirical analysis of the way certain disciplines have developed is interesting, because it shows “the manner in which systems of objective finality and system of communication and power can be welded together.” (788) They also show different models of articulation. Sometimes they focus on obedience, like with prisons, and sometimes on finalized activities, like hospitals, and sometimes to communication, like with apprenticeships.
When he talks about “the disciplining of societies in Europe since the eighteenth century”, he does not mean that people became more and more obedient, or that they started assembling in barracks, but rather that “an increasingly better invigilated process of adjustment has been sought after—more and more rational and economic—between productive activities, resources of communication, and the play of power relations.” (788) Hence, to talk about the “how” of power is to talk about power relations, not power itself.
What constitutes the specific nature of power?
It is not just a relationship between partners, whether individual or collective. It is a way actions modify others. This means there is no capital-P Power, no universal version of it; it only exists when it is put into action. It is not a function of consent or a renunciation of freedom, or a transference of rights like the power of each delegated to a few (though consent may be a condition of the existence or maintenance of power).
One obvious possibility needs to be considered: is violence the most basic element of power? Foucault thinks the answer is an obvious no; violence is direct, while power is indirect:
In effect, what defines a relationship of power is that it is a mode of action which does not act directly and immediately on others. Instead, it acts upon their actions: an action upon an action, on existing actions or on those which may arise in the present or the future. A relationship of violence acts upon a body or upon things; it forces, it bends, it breaks on the wheel, it destroys, or it closes the door on all possibilities. (789)
The opposite pole of violence can only be passivity, but a power relationship has two elements: the other, over whom the power is exercised, has to be recognized as a person who acts, and, when faced with power, “a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible interventions may open up.” (789) Power does not exclude violence any more than it does consent. Consensus and violence can be instruments or results; they are not the principle or basic nature of power. The exercise of power can produce acceptance and kill as many people as it needs, but the exercise of power is not necessarily violent, and it is not an implicitly renewable consent. Rather,
It is a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions; it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action. A set of actions upon other actions. (789)
The word conduct is useful here. To conduct is both to lead others and to behave within a field of possibilities. [The translator notes: this is tied to the French verbs conduire, “to lead” or “to drive”, and se conduire, “to behave”, and la conduite, “behaviour”]
The exercise of power is the guiding of conduct. It is less a confrontation between adversaries than a question of government. The word “government” needs the wider meaning it had in the 16th century. It did not only refer to the management of state, but also the way in which the conduct of individuals or groups could be directed. To govern was to structure the field of possible actions.
When we define power as the action upon action of others, the term freedom is included. Power is only exercised over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free. Power requires a range of possibilities; when possibilities are cut down to only a handful, this is sheer slavery, not a power relationship. There is no face to face confrontation of power and freedom, but a complicated interplay. Each is required for the other to exist. The point is not an “essential freedom”, but an “agonism”, a permanent struggle between the two.
How is one to analyze the power relationship?
We first analyze power by looking at carefully defined institutions, but some things need to be kept in mind. First, part of an institution’s goal is self-reproduction, and we need to ferret out which actions are purely about that reproduction.. Second, in looking at power from the standpoint of institutions, we might end up looking for the origin of power in them — “to explain power to power”. Third, since, institutions act through regulations and an apparatus, we might end up seeing power as only a version of law or coercion. The key is to analyze institutions from the standpoint of power relations, not the other way around. Power relations are crystallized in institutions and their fundamental “anchorage point” is to be found outside them.
As actions upon actions, power relations are rooted in the social nexus, not constituted “above” society as a supplementary structure that we might one day get rid of; “A society without power relations can only be an abstraction.” (791) To say there cannot be a society without power relations is not to say that any given set of them is necessary, or that power is a “fatality at the heart of societies, such that it cannot be undermined.” (791) Rather, the question of power relations and the agonism between power relations and freedom is a permanent political task in all social existence.
The analysis of power requires several concrete points. First, there is “the system of differentiations” which permits actions upon actions. For example, there are differentiations made by laws or traditions of status, or economic differences, or differences of competence. Second, there are the types of objectives of those who wield power, such as the maintenance of privileges or the accumulation of profit. Third, we need to look at the means of bring power into being: maybe violence, or language, or economic disparity, or surveillance, with or without technology. Fourth, there are various forms of institutionalization. These might mix tradition, legal structures, and custom, like families. They can also be closed in on themselves, like militaries. Finally, different power relations have different “degrees of rationalization.” The power relations can be more or less refined and elaborate. We cannot reduce the study of power to the study of institutions. Power relations are rooted in social networks, but there is not a single fundamental principle of power which dominates society down to the details. There are multiple, disparate power relations.
Relations of power and relations of strategy
There is an important difference between power relations and confrontation strategies. A permanent element of power relations is a measure of insubordination; “. . .there is no relationship of power without the means of escape or possible flight.” (794) Power and freedom are limits for one another. A confrontation reaches its limit when stable mechanisms replace antagonistic reactions. In a confrontation, the point is not to struggle to the death, but instead the fixing of power. A confrontation is both the suspension of power and its fulfillment. Further, “… every strategy of confrontation dreams of becoming a relationship of power”.
Power and the strategies used both to resist and impost it have a “reciprocal appeal”; every power relationship may give way to a confrontation between two adversaries. And every confrontation between adversaries can result in a power relation. The consequence of that instability is that we can look at the same events either from struggle or from power. That tension is what makes visible domination.