Foucault: the Revolutionary Who Killed the Revolution

Foucault has cut off the king’s head a second time in the history of France. It is of course not directly him with his hands who did so rather his conception of power, expressed in his various books and lectures of the 70s.

FOUCAULT does not approach power in general. He regards the question “what is power?” as essentialist, hiding behind its apparently descriptive nature a strong normative one: once you have settled a definition of “power,” you are delimiting not only the Idea of power, but also who can legitimately speak about it and who does not. “What is at stake”, he writes, “is the nature of this power which has surged into view […] in the course of the last forty years, contemporaneously, that is, with the collapse of Fascism and the decline of Stalinism” (Two Lectures, 87). Temporally, this particular power is thus the power of the present (or at least Foucault’s). Consequently, in order to sketch his conception of this power he takes a new and unorthodox way: the “genealogy” which is a “critical history.” “Why? Simply, because I am interested in the past?”, he writes in Discipline and Punishment.No, if one means by that writing the history of the past in terms of the present. Yes, if one means writing the history of the present (DP, 30-31).

From sovereign power to disciplinary power.

The genealogy, in the case of power, begins in the late Middle Ages with the early developments of sovereign power which descends from a center to the periphery or to the social body. The figure of such form of power is the king; its emblem is Hobbes’ Leviathan, the “heart” or, better, the “head of the State” which animates the social body. Personal, visible, hierarchic, occasional and repressive, the strongest exercise of sovereign power is depicted in the introductory chapters of DP where Foucault describes a supplice or torture spectacle of a regicide.

Sovereign power existed as a structuring force “as long as a feudal type of society survived”(TL, 103). Around it were built the juridical-political theories of sovereignty and legitimacy whether to strengthen or to put limits to the monarch. “But in the 17th and 18th centuries, we have the production of an important phenomenon, the emergence, or rather the invention, of a new mechanism of power possessed of highly specific procedural techniques (PK, 104).” Such power is disciplinary power. By opposition to the previous one, it is often invisible, anonymous, continuous, multiple, productive and reproductive. Its analysis must be an ascending one, starting from the social body, from the extremities. The center does not exist any more; the king’s head has been cut off but not yet in political theory. Foucault aspires to fill this hiatus between theory and the actual mechanisms of power.

His writings have certainly the merit to break with the old legalistic and state-centered perspective of study of power and to redirect the study of the political towards “those disqualified from the hierarchies of knowledges and sciences (TL, 81-82),” towards places like prisons, asylums, family nuclei, etc. But the most effective use of the notion of power in Foucault’s works remains of a negative kind. In short: power is not to be understood using the lens of sovereignty; power cannot be assimilated to repression or conflict. If there is some positivity in Foucault’s power, this is to be found in five methodological precautions: first, look for power in its extremities, where it prend corps; second, look for power in effective practices; third, power is dispersed, it transits through individuals and at the same time constitutes them; fourth, nonetheless power is unevenly distributed; fifth closely intertwined with power there is the “formation, organization and circulation of knowledge and ideological apparatuses” on which power rests and vice versa (Power/Knowledge). But what is to be done with these five precautions?

Foucault killed not only the king but also the possibility of revolution.

In revolutionary terms probably not much. Though the passage from the juridical-political theory of sovereignty to the genealogies of disciplines and punishments was a revolution in so far as it reversed the traditional paradigm of analysis of power, such passage, if it remains incomplete and vague as Foucault has left it, seems to undermine any potential for revolution. Foucault tells us that power in our modern society is dispersed and that it circulates, that among each individual there are relationships of power. This seems right. But how is this power dispersed? What are its multiple forms? Is there a hierarchy among them? Or are these all identical in terms of intensity? If we do not try to approximate some answers to these questions, if we take into account the dispersion of power as if it were a liquid permeating all society but without knowing where the concentrations within this dispersion are, where the lakes and wells in which the liquid coagulates or, in a different perspective, if we do not see the pattern in which power circulates and what are its main drives, if we limit ourselves to state that power relationships occur among all individuals, then any kind of attempt to relocate the flows of power, to redirect them and to repair to their most uneven manifestations becomes impossible. Losing a center and not replacing it at all, undermines revolutionary perspectives because revolutionaries would not know “where to strike,” and, even further, it could mean that the formation of a revolutionary subjectivity has become impossible. The traditional Marxist questions of strategy and tactics are not relevant any more.

Foucault’s famous aphorism “where there is power, there is resistance,” seems indicative of how he kills not only the king but also the possibility of revolution. In fact, after all, we might be satisfied and reassured by thinking that power is in all cases accompanied by resistance. But resistance is not such a productive force as the revolution might be. Derived from the latin sistere (“stand,” “hold”, “stop”), it indicates the fact of impeding a force, an authority to move you from where you are not from moving forward, despite how ambiguous and double-edged the idea of moving forward or of reversing the order of things might be. Yes, The Order of Things (1966), with its structuralist and epochalist epistemology is not so far, after all, from the networks of power sketched in Foucault’s Two Lectures (1976). Both are frozen, without drives behind them, without an explanation to their appearance and potential disappearance. Both are machines which ultimately do not move (apart when an epochal discontinuity occurs). In short, Foucault is the first to shout aloud “Revolution is dead! Long live to Resistance!

Mario Ranieri Martinotti

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