As I prepared this week for this post, I thought hard about the concept of power- what it means, how it is produced and what are the mechanisms that proliferate it. I thought of the themes of struggle and negotiation because when we examine power or the idea of it, these themes are consistent with the application of power and in the resistance to it. Human beings are constantly engaged in a power struggle, whether it is on a macro-level (national/international politics) or a micro-level (workplace or family dynamics). As the recent events in Libya and Egypt indicate, we are living in times where regimes are becoming increasingly unstable, and the battle over who controls territory, resources and populations are in a constant state of flux which heightens anxiety and uncertainty of what the future will hold. War in fact is an extreme form of negotiation as sides engage in combat either physical or ideological to decide how power is distributed among objects and subjects. War has rules of engagement that exist because humanity negotiated the terms in which we kill and destroy in our power struggles.
Postructuralism is the culmination of the progression of thought that can be traced to the Marxian thesis. We discussed structuralism last week and structuralism is important because structuralists sought to understand the mechanisms than govern or produce human activity. Postructuralists recognize that these structures are never static, even in language. Foucault departs from Marx’s top-down philosophy as he recognizes that discourse exists across the line of discernable power and people outside the realms of power have the ability to change it. We all have agency. So as we proceed I will discuss the broad concept of postructuralism briefly, then I will discuss Foucault’s visitation of the repressive hypothesis and his concepts of biopower, biopolitics and panopticism.
|Jacques Derrida in deep concentration|
For postructuralists, meaning or structure is never fixed but always in negotiation. What is ‘meaning’ exists in a flow of interpretations following interpretations. Meaning is perpetually unstable. Signifiers do not produce signifieds but more signifiers (challenging Saussure) (chain of signifieds). Derrida’s idea of differance is important because he recognizes the importance of the discursive shift that is always in negotiation. “If we look up the signifier letter…we discover five possible signifieds: a written or printed message; a character of the alphabet, the strict meaning of agreement, precisely (as in “to the letter”) and to write or mark letters on a sign…” (CTPC, 126). Binary oppositions exist in a relation of power “in which one term is in a position of dominance over the other” (CTPC,127).
Foucault is concerned with how power operates within discourse as discourse can enable, constrain, or constitute. “Language…is a discourse, it enables me to speak, it constrains what I can say, it constitutes me as a speaking subject (situates and produces my subjectivity)” (CTPC, 128). Where power exists it is also resisted, and power is productive, as it produces reality through discourse. In the History of Sexuality, Foucault examines the discursive formation of sexuality as an invention of the Victorian discourses. The Victorian invention of sexuality did not invent sex itself but produced power over sexual behavior to organize and regulate activity. It sought to determine what was productive or unproductive, what was normal or what was deviant. The discourse acts as an authority over the activity, the “regimes of truth” insomuch as they are accepted, thought to be, and acted on as if they are true. This process is always negotiated or in flux as discourse does not simply impose power, but exists in a space where power is resisted with the opportunity to undermine or thwart it.
|Michel Foucault in a good mood|
The Repressive Hypothesis
Foucault examines the history of sexuality and the proliferation of the subject of sex in public discourse. As sex in the private sphere was something that was censored, the opposite happened in discourse. “There was a steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex- specific discourses, different from one another in both by their form and by their object: a discursive ferment that gathered momentum from the eighteenth century onward” (HS, 302). Power wanted to discuss sex in specific detail, articulating the specific acts, the “positions of the partners, the caresses… an entire painstaking review of the sexual act”. The discussion of sex became more explicit in the pastoral confession, as power needed to know these details about the “evil” in order to eradicate it. Ultimately the discourses on sex define what makes sex productive as they inform society how they should have sex and what acts are outside of normative behavior. Marriage existed as the ideal for sexual relations, in fact, any sex act performed without the specific purpose of procreation in a sanctioned marriage was not acceptable. With this example we can see how the discourses on sex have modified this Victorian attitude. While sex in the institution of marriage still in many ways is ideal, there is much more space and public acceptance for sexual behavior outside of this traditional institution. The fascination with defining acceptable sexual behavior in scientific, medical and legal discourses ostensibly produced a categorization of people based solely on their sexual activity, which is how the idea of the homosexual was born. This is not to say that these sex acts did not exist before this classification, but that the formation of this categorization through discourse acts as a
mechanism for power to regulate this activity. Even as late as the early 20th century,heterosexuality was considered outside of the normative acceptable behavior, as the term defined a deviant abnormal appetite for the opposite sex. Regulating the means of reproduction was necessary for power because of the emphasis on controlling the population. “Governments perceived that they were not simply dealing with subjects, or even with a “people”, but with a “population”, with its specific phenomena and its peculiar variables: birth and death rates, life expectancy, fertility, state of health, frequency of illnesses, patterns of diet and habitation” (HS, 308). The masses were seen as economic components for prosperous industry and it was important to understand and regulate how people reproduced. Marriage existed as an institution to control sex and economic power and sex was regulated by the court system. These regulatory practices are examples of what Foucault called biopower, or the mechanisms or technologies used to control society.
|Good times in the Victorian Era|
Biopower and Biopolitics
The mechanisms for controlling and regulating human activity in society function to make these human subjects productive. Foucault argues that institutions of power exist in a continuity to discipline society into the acceptable forms of behavior. “The continuity of the institutions themselves, which were linked to one another (public assistance with the orphanage, the reformatory, the penitentiary… A continuity of the punitive criteria and mechanisms, which on the basis of a mere deviation gradually strengthened the rules and increased the punishment” (ST, 418). In other words biopolitics are the political practices that regulate or govern the activity of subjects. This is what Foucault calls the “carceral network” or the complex material framework where society is organized. The delinquent is an ‘institutional product" and prison serves as the ultimate in the exercise of discipline. The exercise of the carceral system makes the “power to punish natural and legitimate, in lowering at least the threshold of tolerance to penality” (ST, 419). The various mechanisms employed by the carceral system legitimizes the ultimate forms of punishment and violence, as these modes of justice are naturalized through the various discourses and institutions. Components of the carceral system acting in concert produce the appearance of a system with checks and balances to regulate it. For example, when someone is executed or a declaration of war or other sanctioned violence is activated, the carceral system insures that this mode of action was necessary and a natural consequence after going through the checks and balances of the established order. Foucault writes, “the carceral pyramid gives to the power to inflict legal punishment a context in which it appears to be free of all excess and violence” (ST, 419).
Discourse and more importantly the discourses of power serve to legitimize and make the exercises of discipline regulation and correction normative. “The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator judge, the “social worker” judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based, and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects it to his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements “(ST 420-421). This is why discourse is analogous to power, as power dictates what is acceptable through discourses insomuch as the people in society mirror these regulatory mechanisms because they are agreed upon as normative and necessary.
Jeremy Bentham designed a prison in 1787 that “allows an inspector to observe all the prisoners in the surrounding cells without the prisoners knowing whether or not they are in fact being observed” (CTPC,
|Get in that damn cell!|
131). This design can be viewed as analogous to the mechanisms of control in modern society, as society has a constant awareness of the possibility of being under surveillance. As it exists in this prison design, the inmates are constantly aware of the guard’s ability to watch them, even if this is not the case. In this design power is assumed as automatic, which in turn produces self-regulated activity. “Therefore, they learn to behave as if they were being watched. This is the power of the panopticon. Panopticism is the extension of this system of surveillance to society as a whole” (CTPC, 132).
Foucault describes this shift in social control from punishment to discipline. Instead of the outrageous public displays of punishment and torture to frighten people into behaving, panopticism serves to create awareness that we are always observed by power. We discipline ourselves according to the conventions and laws of society because the real possibility that someone, or most importantly, power, can see us. This historical shift revolutionized the way social control was exercised. Now the overt displays of punishment were no longer necessary, and the discourses and institutions would function to regulate society in a subtler fashion.
“In short, to substitute for a power that is manifested through the brilliance of those who exercise it, a power that insidiously objectifies those on whom it is applied; to form a body of knowledge about these individuals, rather than to deploy the ostentatious signs of sovereignty. In word, the disciplines are the ensemble of minute technical inventions that made it possible to increase the size of multiplicities by decreasing the inconveniences of the power which, in order to make them useful, most control them.” (Panopticon, 209-210)
Tell me who’s watching?
We are all being watched. All around us cameras record our activity; we can be tracked through GPS technology in our cell phones, our exact locations can be pinpointed from satellite view. What does this mean for us? How does it regulate our activity or explicate our subjectivity? People are becoming more paranoid over these mechanisms of surveillance and concerned with their privacy. Citizens are becoming more outraged at this level of surveillance post 9/11, our civil liberties are at stake and individuals feel violated on many fronts.
|We know if you've been bad or good...|
Many would argue that our modern conveniences and advances in technology are simply mechanisms to monitor, regulate, dictate and ultimately control our activity. We are living in a time where panopticism is greater than ever, as most of our activity can be aggregated through databases.
Here are my questions:
1. How do you view power and how do you see it being exercised or negotiated in your life? Do you buy Foucault’s theories of knowledge, power and discourse?
2. Are you at all paranoid because of panopticism? Do you feel that advances in technology, surveillance and information are beneficial or detrimental to humanity?
So as we close I will leave you with clips of a debate between Foucault and Noam Chomsky.