Foucaults Concept Of Power And How It Informs Philosophy Essay

Foucault’s is known for his work in regards to institutions and how they control individuals, as well as his ideas of discourse, power/knowledge and the panopticon. In regards to power/knowledge, Foucault saw power as a series of force relations which control others and allow for the production knowledge. This knowledge collects information about individuals, which in turn allows for the further exercising of power.

To expand on this he brought up the concept of episteme which he saw as periods of time that each having their own different structure of thought or ways of thinking. They are a way of organising ideas, determining how we make sense of the world around us, what we know and what we say, basically they are what we use to base everything we know upon (Danaher, 2000, p17). Foucault identified three main epistemes Renaissance, Classical and Modern, he saw that there was no clear cut transition between the three nor that there is any distinct connection between them. The Renaissance period was defined by a faith in God in that he and his laws were the explanation for most things, Foucault referred to this period as an "age of resemblances" in that most things symbolised something else and that it was through religious practices that these resemblances made sense. In Classical age however faith in religion was slowly giving way to faith in science and things were explained in terms of a natural scientific order that could be seen by observation and understood through experimentation, comparing things around them and giving them a hierarchy of complexity. The Modern period moved on from this and rather than God or nature, humanity and process of knowing themselves with them becoming the subject are responsible for the creation of knowledge (Ibid p19).

In The Archaeology of Knowledge Foucault explained how these epistemes conveyed their views and this was via the formation of discourses. Discourse can be seen as particular way of writing, speaking and thinking in a particular episteme (McHoul, 1993, p31), in the simplest sense discourse is information, with those in power having the opportunity to limit or choose what information we have. For Foucault it is through discourse that we are created, we are the sum of our experiences or the knowledge that we encounter. One of the most important factors that shape our experiences as individuals is language, as it’s used to explain things to others and ourselves. However as our thoughts and how we express them are in fact controlled by these discourses, whoever controls the creation of these discourses in essence controls us (web ref 1) and so discourses have a major part in terms of power relations.

For Foucault knowledge is produced out of power and that knowledge legitimates the actions of those that have some degree of power. This process of legitimating increased with the decline of sovereign power and the rise of the power of the state and with that the rise of human sciences and ‘bio-power’ which is the process of said human sciences such as biology to analyse, control and regulate as well as define the body and its behaviour. From this shift from sovereign power where the king had full control over everything to state power where ‘elected’ officials took control there was a change in how its people were seen, there was a move from the people to being seen as needed to be looked after to them being seen as resources to be exploited. To ensure that the populations were performing at the necessary levels the had to be kept healthy and safe and to achieve this they had to be regulated and controlled and the knowledge to do this came from the human sciences which looked at humanity itself and what affected them as the subject of study (Danaher, 2000, p64). To Foucault bio-power is "a type of power…constantly exercised by means of surveillance…it presupposes a tightly knit grid material coercion rather than the psychical existence of a sovereign" (Foucault in McHoul, 1993, p63).

Despite this shift in types of power, who holds it and how it is exercised, the underlying principles are the same. For example power itself is not an object and no longer specifically belongs to anyone, in terms of renaissance sovereigns justified their power by claiming that it was given to them by God and so they it seemed that they owned it but as times shifted into Classical and Modern epistemes power was no longer justified in terms of divine rights there was a shift away from the idea that God justified and authorised power and towards the idea that only the state itself had the right to lead. If the populace still thought that divine rights existed then the English and indeed French civil wars would not of happened out of fear of divine retribution. In those classical and modern times power acted as a way to bring different institutions, fields of expertise and various groups together with who holds power itself being highly liquid and mobile, moving around depending on varying circumstances. It also should be noted that when one group loses power others are always willing to fight amongst each other to fill the now empty slot (Danaher, 2000, p70). For example when the church lost the majority of its temporal power to create and authorise discourse that it had in the renaissance episteme when the classical episteme took over in 19th century other groups such as the state and science filled in the new gap to authorise and produce their own knowledge.

The modern idea that power comes from the people can also be viewed with some suspicion whilst the existence of democracies allows people to elect their own leaders it doe not give the people power or the power to delegate but the power to allowed groups to stand in for them or to pretend to be their representative, here it can be said that the concept of ‘the people’ is a construct invented by politicians and merely a tool to allow power to be authorised (Ibid, p73). Thought it should be known that power can not be held on to for ever, that no group be it elected, the people themselves or in some cases the military have any distinct advantage when it comes to holding power and eventually those in charge will be removed for another group so it can also be said that whilst power is fickle those who have it influence who holds it later on through their actions. Though the most important factor when it comes to power is that it affects everyone be they the abused or the dominant, they are all affected and moulded by the bio power model, all of their behaviours, values and thoughts can be said to not truly be their own, they are all products of their discourses (Ibid, p74).

With the shift of power from sovereign to state came a shift in the area of criminal punishment as a means to maintain control, discipline and enforce their power. There are seen to be three stages in the development of punishment, torture, humanitarian reform and incarceration. Torture was most common during the sovereign period where committing a crime was seen to go against the will of the monarch in power, further reinforcing the divine right belief of the time. It was in this period that punishment was inflicted on the bodies of the criminal in varying in degrees of pain, duration and intensity based on severity of crime (Smart, p81, 1985). Often such displays of brutality where committed in public to serve as a deterrent for any further misdeeds however over time the publics view on public displays of torture and execution shifted alongside the discourse and episteme and in the 18th century there were reforms that lead to a system that was less about eye for an eye justice and more about the protection of the public from the criminals (Ibid p82). This saw an evolution in the prison system with a focus more on rehabilitation than punishment with the prisoners being monitored and coerced into changing their behaviors and beliefs. One of the prime ways in which prisons as well as other institutions such as hospitals instill discipline is via surveillance and a way of doing this in such places is the panopticon.

The Panopticon, was a concept conceived by Jeremy Bentham in the mid-19th Century for prisons, hospitals and other institutions that required a level of discipline. It coerced individuals to behave through constant observation, each separated from the other and allowed no interaction. In terms of prisons a central tower structure in the centre of a circular block of cells would allow guards to continually see inside each cell, without being seen themselves. By invoking a feeling of paranoia, those being watched did not know if they could or could not be seen so would behave out of fear of punishment. The result of this is that suitable behaviour is achieved not through total surveillance, but by panoptic discipline and making a population survey themselves (web ref 2). Another way in which prisons in particular keep control is by establishing what is seen as normal and judge the prisoners in relation to the established norms, they are only seen as criminal because they are seen to have gone against social norms and thus are deemed abnormal and in need of fixing, this act of judging some ones normality can be referred to as a dividing practice, separating those whom are seen as properly functioning members of society and those who are not and it is through this that those who are deemed abnormal are placed on the bottom of the hierarchy legitimating the power of those above them (Danaher, p61,2000).

Such methods of maintaining discipline are not just restricted to prisons and hospitals they also apply to greater society as a whole. In connection with this Foucault noted that within discipline there were four main ways in which it works. The first is cellular or spatial distribution, by separating certain groups from others for example factory workers from those in the offices one would know their place in the social hierarchy. The second way is organic which is the way that certain activities such as body position and gestures are controlled, in essence those in power are breaking down how they control us into a smaller scale, controlling ever smaller aspects, teaching the individual how to effectively use their bodies. Thirdly is genetic or segmentation of training, which involves the monitoring of skill development, teaching them how to use their skills and work effectively. The final part is combinatory where in individuals form teams to work more effectively than the individuals themselves. In theory these techniques work to create the perfect individual for society (McHoul, p69, 1993).

The main criticism of Foucault in regards to power/knowledge is the resistance against discipline. Foucault thought that to be truly independent one must constantly struggle against the imposed discipline. So according to him following any rule of society is submitting to those in power however he did not explain why there needs to be a struggle or what is to be achieved from it. Also Foucault’s view point can be seen as nihilistic, he did not believe there was any purpose for society and that laws as a whole were unnecessary. From this comes the idea people should simply do whatever they want, whenever they want. He denies the claim that laws actually protect individuals, and do not necessarily have to hurt them, which is most often the perceived case (web ref 3).

Another point is that Foucault’s theory of the role of discipline in everyday life is distorted. He saw it that we all live to a schedule, fulfill a routine, are watched and examined frequently and that no one is out of some form of social controls reach. However just because this happens in prisons does not mean it does in the outside world. It can be said that Foucault overlooks the differences between he systems of control in place in prisons and those in society at large, thus potentially destabilising his view. Finally Foucault can be seen as gender-blind as he does not explore power or knowledge in relation to gender, only looking at male dominated institutions such as prisons, even though there can be seen to be difference in the power/knowledge relations between men and women in regards to identity, treatment and potential differences in how and at what pace they acquire power/knowledge in comparison to men (McHoulr, p74, 1993). Importantly though he limits his historical studies of discourse to Europe as his basis for his work on power and knowledge he also power in relation to race, so how well the concepts can be related is debatable.

Despite their intention to produce conformity there are cases in which the opposite happens and individuality comes across. For example the act of dividing society and removing those who are deviating from the norms is in effect highlighting the differences that those in power do not wish to have around, thus promoting individuality as Foucault puts it "In a system of discipline the child is more individualised than the parent…the madman and delinquent more than normal and the non-delinquent" (Ibid, p72). Essentially it can be said that power does not quite achieve what it sets out to do, whilst it does mould people, difference among individuals still runs writhe and there are still deviants despite the systems of discipline that are in place, however this has always been the cause no matter in which episteme, discourse or indeed type of power that was in place.