The ‘philosophy of desire’ developed by Jean-Fraçois Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze in the period from the late 1960s to the mid-70s can be seen as the attempt, within post-structuralism, to affirm the independent force of an ‘inner nature’—that ‘transitivism of a spontaneous aesthetic’ to which Discours, Figure refersfootnote1—against the assumption of both classical structuralism and Lacanian psychoanalysis that no genuine struggle is required, involving the repression of corporeal impulses and drives, in order for linguistic and social rules to be established and perpetuated.footnote This line of argument, and the aestheticized conception of politics which accompanied it, evidently stands in a close relation to the flowering of self-expression, the assertion of physical and erotic spontaneity against the ascetic routines of the modern working world, which characterized the events of May ’68. But this revelation of the potentially explosive force of individual ‘desire’ was not the only way in which the May revolt represented a fundamental challenge to the view of the social as consisting in systems of communication or symbolic exchange upon which the structuralism of the early 1960s had relied. It also made clear that symbolic structures, far from unfolding in accordance with an immanent logic, were determined by and served to mask relations of power. Theoretically, the concepts of desire and power, each considered as a ‘dimension of force which escapes the logic of the signifier’,footnote2 imply one another. Lyotard’s or Deleuze’s account of the production of the self-conscious subject through the containment of libidinal energy requires a theory of the power which enforces this containment, since without this, as the evolution of their thought demonstrates, desire comes to be seen as self-repressing and the basis of political critique is undermined.footnote3 Correspondingly, a theory of power with radical intent requires an account of that which power dominates or represses, since without such an account relations of power must cease to appear objectionable.

It is Michel Foucault who, during the 1970s, turns away from the more narrowly methodological concerns which preoccupied him during the late 1960s, and begins to develop the theory of power which disillusionment with the political inadequacy of structuralism required. It would be a mistake, however, to understand Foucault’s concern with the problem of power during the ’ 70s simply as the theoretical complement to the philosophy of desire developed by Deleuze and Lyotard. It is true that Foucault often appears to be producing theoretical generalizations about the nature of power. But, in a manner which has no parallel in the work of the désirants, Foucault’s thought is rooted in a highly individual historical vision, which centres on the transition from traditional to modern, industrial societies, and is specifically concerned with the forms of knowledge and modes of social organization characteristic of capitalist modernity; his theoretical formulations on the nature of power can often only be fully comprehended when set in the context of this vision. Indeed, it can be argued that it is the persistence with which Foucault has held to and elaborated his understanding of the historical foundations of the modern West, and the strikingness of the image and allegory through which he has expressed his stance towards the process of modernization, which have been central to his force and his appeal, rather than his modishly fluctuating, and often inconsistent, theoretical and philosophical pronouncements.A consideration of Foucault’s historical views is therefore an essential preliminary for an examination of his account of power.

From the very beginnings of his work, although more explicitly at some periods than at others, Foucault has been concerned with the emergence, expansion and consolidation of apparatuses of administrative intervention in, and control over, the social world, with what he has more recently termed ‘pastoral power’.footnote4 This theme is first broached—in a manner which sets the tone for many of Foucault’s later discussions—in the chapter of Madness and Civilization devoted to the ‘Great Confinement’, where Foucault describes the springing up of institutions of segregation and forced labour, the workhouse, Zuchthaus, and Hôpital Général, across Europe during the seventeenth century. Foucault suggests that these institutions mark a qualitative transformation in the relations between the state and its citizens: madness, along with poverty, unemployment and the inability to work, is for the first time perceived as a ‘social problem’ which falls within the ambit of responsibility of the state. Foucault does not deny the economic dimension of the process of confinement, as a measure intended to reduce social pressures during a period of inflation and unemployment, but is far more concerned with the effects and implications of what he considers to be a new conception of the state as preserver and augmenter of the general welfare, and with the manner in which this conception intersects with a project of homogenization and moralization of the populace. The workhouses, whose task of instilling a new ‘ethical consciousness of labour’—Foucault suggests—was more fundamental than their contradictory economic role, testify to ‘the bourgeoisie’s great dream and great preoccupation of the Classical Age: the laws of the state and the laws of the heart are at last identical’.footnote5 This account of the Great Confinement will then provide the model for Foucault’s discussion of the emergence of ‘humanitarian’ attitudes towards the insane at the end of the eighteenth century. The opening of Tuke’s York Retreat and Pinel’s liberation of the insane at Bicêtre are portrayed as leading to a ‘gigantic moral imprisonment’footnote6 which is more oppressive than the former practices of brute incarceration, since it operates on the mind rather than merely on the body. Modern forms of public provision and welfare, Foucault implies, are inseparable from ever tighter forms of social and psychological control.

A distinctive facet of Foucault’s approach to historical analysis, which Madness and Civilization clearly introduces, is his tendency to condense a general historical argument into a tracing of the emergence of specific institutions. In Foucault’s next historical work this concentration becomes even more evident, indeed is made explicit in the title of the book: The Birth of the Clinic. At the same time, however, Foucault’s analysis of the debates on the status of medicine and on appropriate forms of medical provision which took place at the height of the French Revolution, and his presentation of the policies which ensued, make clearer the broad foundations of his account of modernity. The Birth of the Clinic can be seen as an oblique polemic against the Marxist view that—under triumphant capitalism—the role of the bourgeois state was characteristically limited to upholding the order of private law which secures economic activity and providing corresponding general guarantees of order. According to this view, the bourgeois state has been driven into increasing intervention by the functional inadequacies of the market, whereas Foucault wishes to show that—from the very beginning—intervention and administrative control have defined the modern state. In the debates which Foucault follows, the dictates of economic liberalism, which would have entailed an entirely deregulated, freelance status for medicine, are shown to have been defeated by the demand for surveillance of the health of the nation, a demand which had already made itself felt before the Revolution in the setting up of the Société Royale de Médecine to function as ‘a point of centralization of knowledge, an authority for the recording and assessment of all medical activity’.footnote7 From this perspective the ‘birth of the clinic’ may be explained as resulting from the need for a type of medical institution which would make possible a systematic observation of the nation’s health, achieving the compromise of assigning to medicine ‘a closed domain reserved for it alone, without either resorting to the corporate structures of the ancien régime, or lapsing into forms of state control reminiscent of the period of the convention’.footnote8The ‘medical gaze’ referred to in the subtitle of the book is formed by the new, untrammelled type of observation made possible for the doctor at the bedside of the hospitalised patient intersecting with a system of monitoring of health and hygiene established at the level of the state. Thus, although Foucault’s concern is here with physical rather than moral disorder, The Birth of the Clinic reiterates the view, already expressed in Madness and Civilization, that supervision of, and intervention in, the social domain by agencies of welfare and control is a more fundamental characteristic of modern societies than an economy released from directly political relations of domination.

In Foucault’s two subsequent books, The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge, this concern with the emergence of modern forms of administration of the social world is barely present at all, and Foucault’s attention shifts almost entirely towards the internal structure of scientific discourses, in particular the discourse of the ‘human sciences’, whose origins he believes to be closely intertwined with these forms of administration. In this respect Foucault may be said to have been moving away during the 1960s, in accordance with the objectivism of the structuralist movement as a whole, from any form of politically-oriented analysis. Already, in the preface to The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault had proclaimed: ‘This book has not been written in favour of one kind of medicine as against another kind of medicine, or against medicine and in favour of an absence of medicine. It is a structural study that sets out to disentangle the conditions of its history from the density of discourse, as do others of my works’.footnote9 There was, nevertheless, an evident overlap between the political question of institutions of social control, which was given a new immediacy by the events of May ’68, and Foucault’s longstanding concern with procedures of surveillance and confinement, so that although—in common with the other prominent figures associated with structuralism—Foucault played no direct part in the uprising, it was a comparatively simple matter for him to rejig his position and to emerge as a major theoretician of gauchisme around the turn of the decade.footnote10 During the early seventies Foucault was active in various far-left debates and interventions, the most publicized of which was his participation in the setting up of a Group for Information on Prisons (gip) after a hunger strike which began amongst leftist detainees in 1971. And in 1975, after a gap of six years since his previous book, this experience of political militancy bore theoretical fruit in the form of Discipline and Punish, a history of the emergence of the modern prison system.

Discipline and Punish clearly takes up again the historical analysis begun by Foucault in Madness and Civilization and The Birth of the Clinic, and partially abandoned during the structuralist euphoria of the mid-60s. Like its predecessors, it employs the organizational device of focussing on the emergence of a specific institution. Yet it is also the work in which Foucault introduces and begins to elaborate his theory of power, thereby taking his distance from many of his basic theoretical assumptions of the 1960s. The introduction of the concept of power enables Foucault to formulate far more systematically than hitherto his view of the transformation in forms of social organization and relations of domination which characterises the transition from the ancien régime to the post-revolutionary society of the nineteenth century, a transformation which he describes, in a concise formula, as a ‘reversal of the political axis of individualization’.footnote11 Under a feudal and monarchical system, Foucault suggests, individualization is greatest at the summit of society. Power is visibly embodied in the person of the king, yet in its operation it forms ‘a discontinuous, rambling, global system with little hold on detail’.footnote12 Under this type of regime the notion of crime is still not fully distinguished from that of sacrilege, so that punishment takes the form of a ritual intended not to ‘reform’ the offender but to express and restore the sanctity of the law which has been broken, a principle spectacularly illustrated by the description of the execution of the regicide Damiens with which Discipline and Punish begins. Such forms of retribution, Foucault suggests, are intended to make manifest the unlimited, incomparable power (surpuissance) of the king over a more or less anonymous body of subjects. In modern societies, however, the agencies of punishment become part of a pervasive, impersonal system of surveillance and correction which pays an ever-increasing attention to the idiosyncrasies of the particular case, and above all to the ‘psychology’ of the individual, since intention rather than transgression now becomes the central criterion of culpability. In general, power in feudal societies tends to be haphazard and imprecise, whereas in modern societies effects of power ‘circulate through progressively finer channels, gaining access to individuals themselves, to their bodies, their gestures, and all their daily actions’.footnote13

With his characteristic flair for the arresting image, Foucault summarizes this transformation in the ‘economy of power’ in his description of the Panopticon, an architectural device advocated by Bentham towards the end of the eighteenth century. The device consists of a central elevated watch-tower surrounded by a circular disposition of cells, each of which traverses the entire thickness of the building, and thereby permits its single inmate to be caught, silhouetted, in the light which passes through the cell from the outside. This arrangement makes it possible for a lone observer in the central tower to supervise a multitude of individuals, each of whom is cut off from any lateral contact with his or her fellow inmates. Furthermore, since the guard, although unable literally to observe every inmate at once, cannot be perceived from outside the tower, an effect of constant, omniscient surveillance is obtained. Since no prisoner can be certain of when he or she is not being observed, the prisoners are obliged constantly to police their own behaviour for fear of possible detection: the Panopticon makes possible a new, radically more effective exercise of power, ‘without any physical constraint other than architecture and geometry’.footnote14 As Foucault’s references, in Discipline and Punish, to ‘this panoptic society of which incarceration is the omnipresent armature’footnote15 suggest, the description of the Panopticon is intended as far more than an account of one form of the exercise of power. It not only condenses the argument of Discipline and Punish, but may be seen as a summation of the analysis of modern forms of social administration which Foucault has been conducting ever since Madness and Civilization, combining the themes of a centralization, and increasing efficiency of power with the theme of the replacement of overt violence by moralization. Power in modern societies is portrayed as essentially oriented towards the production of regimented, isolated, and self-policing subjects.