Foucault is often characterised, by critics and proponents alike, as having maintained that power relations are so all-pervasive in society that any attempt at liberation can only be illusory, since such attempts are always and necessarily imbued with, and complicit in, the prevailing power relations themselves: in effect, that every possible apparent antidote is already infected with poison. Since the self that “resists” such power relations is a mere construct of the very power relations it supposedly resists, the would-be rebel can never be more than a hand puppet going through the motions of attacking its puppeteer. Whatever looks like Fighting the Power – Foucault is said to have taught – is just one more trick whereby the Power survives and extends its reach.
This pessimistic interpretation might seem to run up rather quickly against some obvious contrary evidence. Foucault often insists that what is harmful is not power per se, but the particular form of power that he calls domination – in effect, a form of power that oppressively constrains the options of those upon whom it operates. Mere power, by contrast, can be relatively harmless, since it allows those upon whom it operates many options for resisting, subverting, or reversing it. Mere power is, to be sure, always dangerous – since it poses the risk of being transformed into domination – but, as Foucault liked to say, “everything is dangerous,” so the proper response to ordinary power is simply vigilance, not hostility. Thus, an optimistic moral: while power relations are necessarily all-pervasive, they need not be bad; and while domination is indeed bad, it need not be all-pervasive.
Moreover, Foucault also explains that domination can never be complete. One cannot exercise power over the dead or the comatose; power necessarily operates upon subjects who retain their capacity for agency. And from this it follows that domination can never become so oppressive as to foreclose all possibilities of resistance; for the exercise of power depends for its success (as La Boétie, Gandhi, and Rand likewise taught in their different ways) on the cooperation of victims who, still being agents, can never be guaranteed to cooperate. It would seem to follow that while, as Foucault tries to show, putative liberatory projects can be, and often have been, mere stratagems to maintain and extend the existing power structure, they need not be so.
Foucault’s pessimistic interpreters are of course well aware that he said these more optimistic-sounding things. But they maintain that he was inconsistent to do so. As the pessimists see it, the central thrust of Foucault’s overall theorising is that our very identities are so constituted by power relations as to render the distinction between domination and mere power illusory, and likewise to undermine the possibility of any meaningful resistance. On this reading, Foucault’s “real” position, the position that most of what he says supports, is that all apparent resistance to domination is simply another strategy of domination itself – and Foucault’s more optimistic pronouncements to the contrary are simply rosy-eyed afterthoughts that cannot be sustained on the basis of Foucault’s own analysis. Power co-opts, and absolute power co-opts absolutely.
I recently came across (while searching for something else, as is the Way of the Internet) an interesting article by James Johnson, “Communication, Criticism, and the Postmodern Consensus: An Unfashionable Interpretation of Michel Foucault” (Political Theory 25, no. 4 (August 1997), pp. 559-583), which lends some support to those of us who prefer the optimistic reading. Johnson makes a plausible case for the claim that, far from being an unconvincing addendum to a theory constructed on fundamentally pessimistic principles, Foucault’s optimistic moment is woven throughout his canonical presentations of this theory – and in particular that Foucault persistently recognises reciprocal, non-hierarchical, communicative, “contractual” relationships as distinct from (albeit deeply entangled with) power relations and a potential mode of resistance to domination.
If you’re accessing the internet from a university or other institution that subscribes to JSTOR, you can read the article here. Otherwise, you’re … powerless.