Power, Knowledge, Right – Michel Foucault

This post will aim to describe and explain the relations between power, knowledge and right evident throughout the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault.

Foucault is critical of traditional theories of power, such as the Marxist and non-Marxist theories, which he believes are guilty of a certain economism in their analysis of power (Smart, 1985). In his first lecture at the College de France in 1976 he suggests that in the juridical/liberal theories of power, power is viewed as something that can be acquired, like a commodity, and can be exchanged from one person to another through a contractual act (Foucault, 2003). Foucault however seeks a non-economist analysis of power (Smart, 1985). The juridical/liberal theories of power understand power as repressive and Foucault states that this idea of power needs to be rethought and the mechanisms of power need to be seen as facilitating something more than just repression (Foucault, 2003).

In his second lecture at the College de France in 1976 Foucault questions how power is exercised. In order to understand the mechanisms of power Foucault establishes two limits; the first relates to the rules of right that formally delimit power and the second relates to the effects of truth or knowledge produced and transmitted by power, and which in turn reproduce this power. Therefore, Foucault states we have a triangle of power, right and knowledge (Foucault, 2003).

Foucault states that the traditional question of political philosophy in relation to power is how is the “discourse of truth” able to set “limits to the rights of power?” However Foucault, in contrast, now questions “what rules of right are implemented by the relations of power in the production of discourses of truth?” (Foucault, 2003:93)

In Western societies since the Middle Ages, Foucault argues, where relations between power and right are concerned, the elaboration of legal thought has centred around royal power. Foucault states that “right in the West is the King’s right” (Foucault, 2003:94) or the right of royal command. The legal system of Western societies, the discourse of right, was originally formed around the royal personage for the benefit of royal power. Later it developed to set limits on this sovereign power (Smart, 1985). The king, however, is central to the organisation of the legal system in the West and the focus of discourse is to either justify the sovereign’s power as befitted his fundamental right or to impose limits on sovereign power, submitting it to rules of right (Foucault, 2003).

Foucault believes that right, in this sense, is an instrument used to dominate and that the relations of power are in fact hidden by the discourse of right. Foucault believes that we have to get around the problem of sovereignty, which is central to the theory of right, and the obedience of the individuals who submit to it and to reveal the problem of domination and subjugation instead of sovereignty and obedience. In Truth and Power Foucault emphasises that we need a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the theory of sovereignty and in order to do this he states that we need to cut off the king’s head (Foucault, 1980). In order to reveal the relations of power hidden by the discourse of right Foucault observed the following five methodological precautions.

The first precaution relates to Foucault’s argument that the analysis of power should not be concerned with power in its central location, for example the sovereign, but rather in its extremities where power overcomes the rules of right. Foucault, rather than questioning who has the right to wield power, questions how power is embodied in the institutions at a local and regional level. Thus, Foucault argues that power should no longer be viewed as a force exercised from above based on universal right but rather we should concern ourselves with where the exercise of power becomes less and less juridical; where power becomes “capillary” (Foucault, 2003:94).

The second precaution relates to Foucault’s belief that we should eliminate studies of power “from its internal point of view” and look at “its real and institutional effects” (Foucault, 2003:97) He is not concerned with the reasons behind the pursuit of power or the intentions behind it but rather is interested in how power itself works.

Foucault’s interest lies in the relation between power and right and how discourses of right, by means of subjugation, coerce our bodies and govern our gestures.

Foucault’s third precaution suggests that power should not be considered as one person’s or institution’s authority over all others, but rather power should be analysed as something that circulates. It is “employed and exercised through a net-like organisation” (Foucault, 2003:98). Individuals, he states, are the vehicles of power, they don’t just experience it but also transfer power; they are not just objects undergoing power but also the agents exercising power.

To explain, Foucault states that in any society there are many relations of power which make up the social body and power cannot be exercised without certain discourses of truth. He states that “We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth” (Foucault, 2003:93).  In other words the way power is wielded is through discourses of truth which first have to be validated by a learned community. To have knowledge, Foucault argues, is to have the ability to make certain statements pass among others as true (Allen, 1999). The community decides what can be regarded as knowledge, therefore power, and what cannot. Power thus circulates throughout society and both creates and is governed by the accepted local practises and discourses within that particular society. One cannot escape power, Foucault argues, power can only be negotiated and resisted from within a local context. Thus, rights are also viewed from a local context and relate specifically to the individual in question rather than the “rights of men” (Gavin, 2009).

The fourth precaution centres on the idea of conducting an ascending analysis of power. The mistake of other theories, Foucault suggests, is that they analyse power deductively. Foucault looks at power in the lower-levels, such as discipline in prisons and schools, and observes how it has extended to the higher level; how the accepted discourses of truth and knowledge at the lower level of society is applied to more “general mechanisms” in order to serve “forms of global domination” (Foucault, 2003:99).

An example used by Foucault to support his ascending analysis of power is madness. In Madness and Civilisation Foucault highlights how madmen were excluded due to the fact that their idleness posed a threat to bourgeois society where labour was the most significant value (Foucault, 2001). Accepted forms of discourse of knowledge allow the distinction to be made between what is normal and what is abnormal, thus those who lie outside the realm of the norm are subject to power and punishment in that they are excluded from society. At the higher levels of society, according to Gutting, they are not interested in such matters as madness but rather the ways in which the lower-level have developed mechanisms of exclusion as they can then apply this to a more general form of domination; a general form of domination which is politically useful (Gutting, 2005).

The fifth and final precaution centres on Foucault’s argument that power and its mechanisms are not in fact products of ideology. The production of ideology coexists within the machinery of power however ideology does not shape them. Foucault argues that mechanisms of power would be unable to function unless knowledge apparatuses were created, organised and made to circulate, and states that these knowledge apparatuses are not ideological constructs (Foucault, 2003).

Foucault’s methodological precautions steer analyses of power away from traditional juridical/liberal theories, theories centred on the sovereign and the state, to a consideration of the mechanisms of power and domination which began to emerge during the eighteenth century. The new mechanism of power was exercised over bodies via a new system of surveillance and by utilising the subjected body through material coercions. This new form of power is known as disciplinary power; a form of punishment closely linked to power and knowledge relations which, through objectification, form human beings as subjects, for example criminals, and also make them objects of knowledge for the human sciences (Smart, 1985).

Discipline can be understood in two ways; firstly as the physical act of discipline, a negative force associated with punishment, and secondly a set of abilities we need to have in order to be recognised and appreciated within a particular area of society, these are seen as a positive force. Through Foucault’s concept of power and knowledge the two ways that discipline is understood can be connected. Knowledge, Foucault argues, is something that makes us a subject because in order for us to make sense of ourselves, to classify ourselves, we must have the ability to refer back to various forms of knowledge. However, to be a part of a certain system we are also allowing ourselves to be subject to judgement, surveillance and for our attitudes to be moulded in a certain way. In this way the power of discipline and knowledge have a specific relationship in that they “make” us who we are (Danagher, Shirato, Webb, 2000).

Foucault argues that as our understanding of ourselves and our lives is always filtered through and influenced by the discourses, ideas and institutions that constitute society there is in fact no true state of existence. An example of one of the institutions Foucault refers to is that of is the penal system. In Discipline and Punish Foucault describes the change that occurred in the penal system between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Torture of the body and public executions gave way to the incarceration of criminals who were put through disciplinary programmes and routines and regulated by surveillance (Foucault, 1977). It was now the soul, conceptualised in terms of psyche, character, consciousness and individuality, rather than the physical body that was subject to punishment (Smart, 1985). The change was representative of a new relationship between power, knowledge and right.

The changes that occurred in the penal system were less to do with making criminals aware of their bad behaviour and more to do with creating a ‘subject’ who could be identified and subsequently treated as a prisoner. Foucault’s idea of the subject and its relation to power and knowledge is highlighted by Rabinow in The Foucault Reader. Foucault establishes that there are three modes of objectification of a subject. These include dividing practises, scientific classifications and subjectification. The first mode of objectification, dividing practises, centres on the idea of categorisation and manipulation as discussed previously in relation to the subject in Discipline and Punish. In the dividing practises “the subject is objectified by a process of division either within himself or from others” (Foucault, 1984: 8). The second mode of objectification is scientific classification and it is based on how science classifies the individual as the subject of language, labour and life. However, Foucault’s most original contribution, according to Rabinow, is the third mode of objectification and that is the idea of subjectification. Subjectification relates to the way individuals subjectify themselves (Foucault, 1984).

Foucault’s idea of subjectification relates to Bentham’s idea of the ‘Panopticon’. The model of the Panopticon is a tower placed in a central location within a prison in order for the guards to be able to observe each cell and its occupants at any given time (Foucault, 1977). It was designed in a way that the prisoners would be unable to know whether they were being observed at a particular time or not. Prisoners however would know that they could be observed at any moment and so would modify their behaviour accordingly (Danagher, Shirato, Webb, 2000).

The idea of this authoritive gaze did not remain confined to the prison however, but moved through various institutional areas in society, for example, teachers use it as they move about the classroom and surveillance techniques have become fundamental to life in western societies. The gaze, however, also becomes a way of looking at ourselves. We become the subject of our own gaze and we constantly monitor our bodies, what we do and how we feel (Danagher, Shirato, Webb, 2000). Power is no longer a force bearing down from above but rather is wielded in the form of self-regulation. Individuals strive to live by the accepted knowledge of what constitutes a ‘norm’ within society and thus modify themselves in order to remain in accordance with these accepted ‘norms’.

The prison thus does not lie on the margins of society to cater for those who have been expelled from it but rather it extends in a variety of ways throughout society. The rest of society modelled itself on the modern prison with schools, factories and even hospitals being modelled on the prison; the mode of punishment becomes the model of control for society.

The three techniques of control at the centre of Foucault’s modern disciplinary society include hierarchical control, normalising judgement and examination. Hierarchical control assumes a mechanism that coerces by way of observation. Normalising judgement is essentially the punishment of non-conformity which disciplinary power aims to correct. Discipline, in this instance, not only punishes but rewards providing privileges for good conduct and penalties for bad conduct (Smart, 1985). The third technique of control is a key example of Foucault’s power/knowledge relationship as it combines “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth” (Foucault, 1997: 184). The examination combines both hierarchical observation and normalising judgement by producing truths about those who undergo examination and by controlling behaviour. The examination produces truths about the person who undergoes the examination, in the case of a school or university they find out what the person knows. The examination also controls their behaviour by way of making them do something, in this case study. Foucault believes that power and knowledge are closely related as knowing allows one to exert control and by control one has the ability to know.

In conclusion we see that Foucault’s conception of power greatly differs from that of traditional juridical/liberal theories. Power is not something that can be acquired and used as an oppressive force, it is not something exercised by a higher authority as a means of control; power, to Foucault, is  something productive that extends beyond the limits of the sovereign or the state. Power produces what we believe to be our reality through knowledge however knowledge is also produced by power i.e. power cannot exist without the discourses produced within a society; but power also governs the creation of these discourses. Foucault argues that one is incapable of escaping power and in fact power can only be negotiated or resisted from within a local context. Thus, rights are based on the experience of the individual in question rather than appealing to a universal context and the “rights of men”. The relations of power, knowledge and right are a central theme in much of Foucault’s work and are fundamental, he would argue, in understanding how power actually works.