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
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
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
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
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
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.