Foucault – Position – Power/Knowledge

Let me begin by baldly stating terms. By power, I understand the texts to mean a field, an environmental and systemic set of the conditions of possible relations between entities. By knowledge, we indicate a different set, of directed, formed, and specific deployment of such relations. It is the articulation of conditions with relations that leads us to the complex under discussion here: power/knowledge. And by the critique of power/knowledge, I refer to the gleaned thread of Foucault’s argumentation throughout his books and lectures. With that in mind, I propose an adoption of this critique for more contemporary (as opposed to explicitly historical) research and theoretical undertakings.

In the first instance, one cannot ignore the neologistic combination/division of terms propagated by Foucault. Simply put, concatenating the terms as “power/knowledge” indicates that power is produced through the practices of truth-making, and thereby through discursive regimes. In fact this is not a radically new idea, having been explored in other arenas by philosophers as diverse and ancient as Sun Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, and Machiavelli, and in great detail by more recent thinkers, such as Nietzsche. But Foucault introduces an original means of articulating the systemic functions that constitute those regimes. When his analyses delve into four-century archives in order to determine how societies spoke about (or silenced) specific power relations – physical or mental health, political or social government, sexuality, penalty – they do so with this overarching complex in mind.

The components that constitute power/knowledge vary depending upon a great many factors. First, historical transformations – marked for Foucault, as ever, by Renaissance, Classical, and Modern epistemes – give rise to different dominant European discursive schemata. Where earlier epistemes draw on direct correlations between representation and analysis, for example, later ones pile mediating commentary upon those structures to the point of disjuncture between reality and discourse. And intellectual production is hardly the principal motivating factor of historical change. In grounded, quotidian practice, institutional and sedimentary relations of power mark their effects upon the very bodies of historical subjects. Confinement and movement, training and education, speech and writing all converge on bodies in collection or isolation: archaeology and genealogy are attempts to understand these convergences as irruptions of interpretable power/knowledge.

This is also why the analysis of power/knowledge does not reduce to political economy or social psychology. Abstractions of language also remain insufficient to explain the depth of power relations or the organization of knowledge, and here lies the break that Foucault insists upon from structuralism proper. A stickier homology does occur between power/knowledge and the will to power, or in decisive capability as the defining characteristic of a state. However, the intense focus on not just political but aesthetic expressions of power relations does reveal the distinction between Foucault’s approach to totalizing systems, and those of less empathetic critics to disenfranchised or marginalized subjects. The degree to which empathy for subaltern subjects inflects the critique of power/knowledge remains an open question for now.

To whatever extent Foucault can be thought to propagate a radical philosophy, his arguments are bound up throughout with both aesthetics and politics. The co-determination between these aspects comes to bear most explicitly in his expanded set pieces of literary and aesthetic criticism. Embracing the late twentieth century’s stylistic expansion of theory into a creative undertaking of its own, his writing nevertheless reflects a deep investment in the utility and functionality of critique. The recurring demonstration of power/knowledge as an effectively omnipresent phenomenon in contemporary society includes the persistent theme of its social construction. And here we find a set of coordinates within which we can map the interplay of relations and conditions, institutions and enunciations, poetics and praxis, even psyche and sovereignty. That is, the discursive construction of regimes of power occurs precisely at social coordinates, in collective existence.

It is on this basis that we can introduce questions concerning technology, so to speak, to a “Foucauldian” framework. The co-determination between use and purpose appears here, as fraught as ever with elements of control and of history. The social construction of technology — the notion that invention and skill hold no position outside of the realms of discourse and human relations — becomes a central concept in much contemporary discursive analysis. This stands to reason, as the mutation of writing across technologies of recording itself comprises a vast realm of study. And the analytic flexibility of Foucault’s critiques, though they certainly butt up against limitations of paper archives in his own practice, withstand a great deal of stress when juxtaposed against more recent forms of the dissemination of knowledge and the manifestation of power relations. One such area, where Foucault’s nuanced view of cultural hegemony proves extremely helpful to such analyses, is the complication of straightforwardly Marxist views of class conflict as the engine of history.

To be sure, this area requires a more sustained treatment than is possible by a reading of Foucault’s own work in isolation from others. First, hegemony has an unsteady relationship to class in his thought. Gramsci’s concept of historical blocs does not clarify his position. Neither, from another angle, does Jameson’s invocation of a political unconscious. The trouble with reducing the critique of power/knowledge to these monolithic directions is just that: directionality. Since power comprises the field or conditions under/on which (spatial metaphors disintegrate) relations – singular or collective – concretize, and since knowledge forms not just the rules but also the deviations by which those relations undergo transformation, the linear/dialectical historical causality assumed by Marxist cultural theory twists in upon itself.

Since power/knowledge does not equate with Althusser’s RSA/ISA schema, either, on account of its attention to unexpressed potentiality, the impulse to treat its critique as a scientific theory capable of hypothetical testing confronts a profound dilemma, in which scientificity, so to speak, is so deeply contextualized that its baseline assumptions constitute only one among many practices of veridiction. Since we cannot assume the existence of cultural norms before our apprehension of them, and since that apprehension must account for potential formations in addition to explicit ones, Foucault’s critique turns contemporary thought back to a fundamental tenet of Enlightenment: the status of transcendental subjectivity.

The distinction between Kant’s transcendental idealism – in which he contends that right-minded criticism can provide metaphysical sastisfaction beyond either materialist (sensual) or intellectual (cognitive) perception – and Foucault’s recognition that metaphysics confounds the search for regimes of truth-telling – cannot erase the foundational paradoxes upon which the critique of power/knowledge is founded. In order to understand the interplay of force and field, we must manage the abiding contradiction of an historical a priori when it comes to a material archive. Similarly, the student of power/knowledge must attend to the conditions that produce an historically inscribed body, and thereby confront the question of trust in either their senses or their reason. Here against Kant as against Marx or against Freud, the irruption of something very much like conscience┬áinto the workings of Foucault’s critique raises more questions than it answers.

The concept of power/knowledge itself is only disguised as a recapitulation or synthesis of the themes pursued in sometimes roundabout ways throughout Foucault’s early and major works. In practice, his critique of the concept, once fully developed through The Order of Things and in the lectures, constitutes an unabashed challenge to received wisdom. In restating and summarizing and sketching its patterns here, I have been leading myself down a certain garden path, though. I raise specific characteristics of the argument: collective life, or the social; historically inscribed bodies; technological apprehension; cultural assumptions; subaltern subjectivity: in order to suggest connections to other projects of my own interest. In relation to ongoing research on the foundations and development of the Internet as an object of cultural studies, I suspect that the articulation of its structural stacks, its multivariate users, and its multimedia contents on one another requires just such a critique. Regarding the possibilities and limitations of computational humanities and social-science research, an abiding problem in the fields remains the supposed incommensurability between interpretive and positivist logics. Finally, with respect to attention to the emerging West African internet, power/knowledge asks its critics to obtain explicitly local information, positing (but by no means bound only to) a traditional archive alongside a set of speaking subjects who comprise a traditional population. The clear problem in adopting Foucault’s themes here is that whatever questions are raised by such a situation refer to emerging data, not to an established archive replete with apocrypha and ephemera. And so, the impulse to construct counter-narratives to hegemonic history must defer to a descriptive rather than analytical approach, at least in its infancy. Having done so, however, I wish to maintain the focus on problems of power/knowledge and discursive regimes, for veridiction does not cease at some arbitrary point in the recent, digital past.

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