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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
The Genealogy Of Power: On Michel Foucault
Liam O Ruairc • May 2003

Earlier this week, one of the headlines of the Irish Times was “Mentally ill much more likely to be detained in certain areas” (Monday 26 May 2003). Every year 2600 people are interned in psychiatric hospitals against their will. International comparisons show that the 26 counties’s overall rate of involuntary detention is high, twice that of England and four times higher than Italy. Mentally ill patients are almost three times more likely to be detained in a psychiatric hospital against their will depending on the health board area where they live. The founder of the Irish Advocacy Network declared to the Irish Times:

A prisoner has more rights than a mentally ill patient under (the current) legislation. A detained patient is deprived of the most basic rights, yet a prisoner can be released on bail or have temporary release. I can’t understand why the rates of detention vary so much from area to area. Why some health boar areas seem to be more open to denying someone their liberty than others is mind boggling.

Indeed. On what grounds are individuals defined as "mentally ill”, and on what basis are some “mentally ill” people interned and others not? If there is some “objective basis” for this, how is it that some areas are more likely to intern people than others? The fact is that people are left at the mercy of the unaccountable power of psychiatry. However, psychiatry cannot avoid major controversies. In the case of “paedophiles” and other “sexual deviants” for instance the discourse and categories of psychiatry clash with those of criminology for example. In a court of law, psychiatrists and jurists will fight each other to determine whether the accused was “insane” or “responsible”, etc. They will also clash as to whether the accused should be sent to prison or in a psychiatric hospital and also on what grounds can the accused be considered fit for release. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a very original French thinker who came up with brilliant insights on how the categories of discourses like psychiatry or genealogy developed. His writings have been and still are extremely influential. Foucault shows how what we consider to be “true” or how human beings understand themselves are related to determinate forms of power.

During the 1970s, Michel Foucault adopted a “genealogical” method to examine the conditions of production of certain theoretical discourses like psychiatry or criminology. Genealogy is a method of historical analysis which unmasks the will to power at the root of history. Applied to the history of ideas for example, genealogy points that the different sciences’s quest for “truth” or “objectivity” is in fact a quest for “power”, to dominate. Specifically, Foucault was interested in showing the intrinsic links between power, knowledge and the human subject. The conditions of possibility of a science are to be found in relations of power. Psychiatry, criminology, as discursive practices, become only possible with the emergence of a certain form of power: asylums, prisons, hospitals. In its turn, this knowledge enables a class of people (doctors, judges, social workers etc) to exercise power over another class of people (the insane, the prisoners). Knowledge is an effect of power, and in its turn creates more power. Doctors and judges, with the latest results of psychiatry or penology are able to lock people up for ever. They have the power to decide who is “mentally ill”, a “pervert”, or a “criminal”.

Think of what this means in practice. Joan, a former involuntary patient told the Irish Times: It meant being forced to take medication, undergo electroconvulsive therapy against her will and being searched after any contact with a visitor. ‘There was nothing to live for. We were just treated like wild animals, there was no future, everyday was the same. It could have been January or June, you had no way of knowing.' For Foucault there is not power and knowledge, but just “power-knowledge”.

There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose or constitute at the same time power relations. These power-knowledge relations are to be analysed, therefore, not on the basis of a subject of knowledge who is or is not free in relation to the power system, but, on the contrary, the subject who knows, the objects to be known and the modalities of knowledge must be regarded as so many effects of these fundamental implications of power-knowledge and their historical transformations. (SP, 32)

Finally, the category of the “subject”, that is the categories through which human beings define themselves as individuals (for example how individuals are defined as “mad”, “prisoner”, “homosexual”) is constituted by constellations of power-knowledge. “The individual is not a pre-given entity which is seized on by the exercise of power. The individual, with his identity and characteristics, is the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces.” A good illustration of Foucault’s theories is ethnology. Ethnology was made possible by a form of power: colonialism. Ethnological theories in turn helped shaping colonial policies (for example how Belgian authorities dealt with Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda). The manner in which indigenous populations came to be “interpelled” as subjects (as “Hutus” or “Tutsis”, “European” or “Indigenous) was shaped by a constellation of power-knowledge. As a subject “interpelled” (Althusser) by psychiatry, Joan says: “It’s like you’ve a stamp on your forehead for life. There are countries which I can never travel to because I won’t get a visa. If there is a job vacancy and two people are going for it, chances are they won’t give it to the person who was mentally ill.” Ex-prisoners will also identify with that.

For Foucault, “the history of the present” (SP, 35) is characterized by an exponential growth of more domination and power. Modernity’s “progress” is simply the progress of domination. His book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” for example argued that the transition from one form of punishment to another (from physical punishment to modern methods of imprisonment and rehabilitation) was not a result of greater humanity or increase in knowledge, but simply a strategy of power (cfr, SP, 81 and pp.83-84). In particular, he links modernity to the emergence of a “disciplinary society” (SP, 211) at the turn of the 19th century with a system of prisons, hospitals, asylums and workhouses. Modernity is inseparable from the exclusion of the mad, the ill, the criminal, the pervert, the poor … Society as a whole has become a large prison with no outside (SP, 228 and 301) “Is it surprising if prisons look like factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, who in turn all look like prisons?” (SP, 229) No wonder that Joan can declare: 'To me being in a locked ward was worse than being in prison. If you break the law and commit a crime, you go to prison. Yet you can be locked up in a hospital if you’re ill and have done nothing wrong. No one should have a right to do that to someone.' (Irish Times, 26 May 2003)

It is important to note that for Foucault, power is not the property of a particular social actor (the ruling class for example) or located in a particular institution (the state for example). Power is diffused all over society, everywhere where there is a relationship of force.

Power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organisation … Power’s condition of possibility … must not be sought in the primary existence of a central point, in a unique source of sovereignty from which secondary and descendent forms could emanate … Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere. (VS, 121-122)

That is when Foucault’s analysis starts to become problematic and begins to loose its strength. Power becomes neither differentiated, delimited and defined. Power is everywhere, there is nothing outside power, thus power can only appear as unconditioned. So power can only be explained by … power! Foucault moves away from an explanation of power to an explanation by power. Power is not the effect of a particular form of social organisation, but rather its cause. Power becomes the secret essence of things, it is constitutive of reality. The supposed “historical complexity” of power ends up in ahistorical ontological simplicity. Everything is just power and nothing else. Nowhere is that more evident than in his analysis of resistance (think of revolts in the prisons, anti-psychiatry etc). “Where there is power, there is resistance, and that however, or rather equally, the latter is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.” (VS, 126-127) Foucault is unable to conceptually distinguish resistance from power and thus specify the conditions of possibility of resistance. If resistance is never in a position of exteriority to power (given that power is everywhere), how can resistance be anything other than a form of power? Since it is a power itself, it can never really be subversive, it is merely the counterpart of the power that generated it. If resistance triumphs over power, it will just become another form of domination, perhaps even worse than the old. Foucault’s conclusions cannot but breed a deep scepticism about the possibilities of historical transformation.

The same goes with knowledge. Foucault denies knowledge any identity of its own, reducing it to an effect of power. Is knowledge only power and nothing more ? It is true that theoretical discourses are produced and reproduced within definite relations of power, and these relations have an effect on the constitution of discourses. However, theoretical discourses should not be reduced to the social conditions in which they were produced. Theoretical discourses have at least two distinct determinations: the context of discovery and context of justification. Theoretical discourses have their own rhythms, which cannot be reduced to those of power. A simple reduction of theoretical discourses to power is unable to account for objectivity and epistemic progress. Foucault’s history of madness, for example, reveals no progress in the theoretical and practical understanding of an illness; distinctions between sanity and madness, health and sickness are not related to the progress of knowledge, but only to changes in relations of power. Finally, Foucault is unable to provide a conceptual framework that accounts for both the internal complexity of subjectivity as well as the external forces that over-determine it. The subject is reduced to an effect of the operations of power. Therefore there is no human nature (the free individual, sexuality, etc) to be liberated from power, for that “nature” is already the effect of the operations of power. So on what grounds can social practices be deemed “inhuman” or oppressive of the individual?

Partly because of the difficulties raised by his collapsing of truth, resistance and the human subject into “power”, Foucault came to abandon in the early 1980s his genealogy of power/knowledge for a totally new project: a genealogy of ethics. He embarked on a study of Greek, Roman and early Christian’s attitudes to sexuality and how individuals shape themselves as ethical subjects. Foucault seeks to find in obscure classical texts “the elaboration of a form of relation to self that enables an individual to fashion himself into a subject of ethical conduct” (SS, 274). That Foucault never returned to his genealogy of power/knowledge was a recognition that his theory of power had finished into a dead end. However, the vast amount of work on or influenced by Foucault (that has been increasing every year since his death from an AIDS related disease in 1984) are a clear indication that whatever the weaknesses of his theories, he remains a crucial thinker.

Books Quoted:

Surveiller et Punir: naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard), 1975 (SP)
Histoire de la Sexualite 1: La Volonte de Savoir (Paris: Gallimard), 1976 (VS)
Histoire de la Sexualite 3: Le Souci de Soi (Paris: Gallimard), 1984 (SS)




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16 June 2003


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Building an AntiWarMovement: Moving to Action
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The Genealogy of Power: On Michel Foucault
Liam O Ruairc


Trade Union Bureaucrats Shaft Aldergrove Workers

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The Conveyer Belt of Informers



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