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Foucault on Power/Knowledge  

2009-09-12 00:26:55|  分类: 后结构理论 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Final Exam (Take-home)

Student Essay

Foucault’s Anti-Method and Genealogy of Power-Knowledge

 

The French philosopher, critic, and historian Michel Foucault is an original and creative thinker who has made significant contributions to the study of the history of ideas. Yet he is not a philosopher or historian in the conventional way. Foucault’s notion of history is characterized by discontinuity, rupture and arbitrariness—a departure from the traditional belief in an integrated and unified history. His works on sexuality, madness, medicine and punishment are more than just an account of their development or a philosophy about their foundations. This essay attempts to give an introduction to Foucault’s anti-method, or genealogy, which is adopted in his study of the history of ideas, including such key concepts as subjectivity, power-knowledge and discipline.

In the study of the history of ideas, Foucault offers a new method of his own—the anti-method, which challenges conventional methods that usually demonstrate their objectivity, comprehensiveness and desperately in search of apolitical nature. Foucault’s method is an anti-method in the sense that it has a clear and strong statement of its political purpose and intends to dispel the illusion of the existence of an apolitical method. The political question in Foucault’s scholarship has nothing to do with electoral or even ideological performance but with the politics of truth, in terms of “what kinds of discourse are true, what the mechanism and sanctions are for distinguishing true from false, the techniques for acquiring truth and the status of those who are empowered to say what is true” (131).

Foucault at first called his new method “archaeology” and not until the beginning of the 1970s did he develop his more adequate “genealogy” to denote his anti-method. Foucault believes that there are many forms of subjugated knowledges, that is, knowledges which have been excluded and rejected by the mainstream knowledge. For Foucault, archaeology is the process of digging out and analyzing the “theoretical system of knowledge,” whereas genealogy is a method dealing with “power and real practical struggles” (O’Farrell 64). In other words, archaeology is about discourses while genealogy is about power relations. If we take archaeology as an analysis of subjugated knowledges, the aim of genealogy is to activate them so that they can be effective for people’s struggles. The missions of archaeology and genealogy are essentially the same, but a shift from the former to the latter reveals Foucault’s growing concern for power relations and disregard of the “origin-continuity-subject-event” matrix of the traditional history of ideas.

Traditional historians are always trying to seek the origin of an idea or institution, assuming that an essence always exists and is first revealed in the founding era; the continuous development would then be considered as “the progress of ‘fall’—away from the original and essential meaning”; the “events” thus, in the case of the history of ideas, are the “work” or “theory”, and they are closely associated with the idea of “subject” or the “author”, as Larry Shiner puts it, “the individual as creator and bearer of history (387). Foucault’s genealogy rejects the “origin-continuity-subject-event” complex at every point, which is opposed to the traditional search for ahistorical foundations and metaphysical essence. His genealogy traces not “origin,” but “descent.” He frees us from the illusion of a presupposing essence or truth, and without an origin, continuity is also impossible. “Genealogy is the analysis of how one constellation of power-knowledge relations is displaced by another; it attends to the breaks that punctuate history” (381). For Foucault, discontinuity is a fact, and the whole Western history is accidental—it has neither origin nor essence but only nexuses of power-knowledge relations.

By rejecting “origin” as well as “continuity,” genealogy also rejects the idea of a priori and transcendental “subject,” best illustrated by Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” For Descartes, subject is a person who thinks about and perceives an objective world, and subjectivity is independent of material conditions. In other words, the thinking subject is split from an external world of objects that he thinks about and it is a transcendental existence unaffected by material conditions. The Cartesian theory of subjectivity is challenged by later thinkers who see subject as not a truly free agent but bound by specific exterior material conditions. The major influence on these later thinkers is Francis Bacon who questions the notion of “a truly autonomous subject” and argues that “institutions, language and even biology” all serve to establish a subject which is “shaped by acculturation” (Decker 18-19). Following the tradition of Baconian subjectivity, Foucault also opposes the notion of a universal and timeless subject and sees subject as a changing form created by power relations. His rejection of subject as the creator of history shows his intention to organize history in a different way which “can account for the constitution of knowledges, discourses, domains of objects, etc., without having to make reference to a [transcendental] subject…” (Shiner 387). In place of subject, Foucault proposes organizing principles and governing rules which are a part of power relations. Therefore, in the study of the history of ideas, it is not a matter of analyzing the “subject” who is the originator or author of a certain work, but in looking at what principles and rules underlie the formation of this history.

If one side of Foucault’s genealogy can be read as a critique of the transcendental tendencies of traditional history of ideas, the other side can be read as a critique of the traditional political theories of power which regard power as prohibition, repression and oppression. Marxist theory, for example, views power as an apparatus of political and economic oppression. It states that society is split up into two opposing classes, and power is primarily exercised from the Bourgeois class above downward to the Proletarian class below. Freudian theory, in analyzing the tripartite model of the human psyche, sees power as repression which concerns the perpetual struggle between id, the container of our primitive desires that demand immediate satisfaction, and superego, the embodiment of social values and rules. For Freud, repression is a part of social and cultural development: it suppresses individual desires for the good of community. In Freud’s own words, “every culture must be built on coercion and instinctual renunciation” (qtd. in Decker 38). Foucault, however, holds a view of power that is opposite to these traditional ones. According to Foucault, power is a “relation between different individuals and groups and only exists when it is being exercised” (O’Farrell 99). It is possessed not merely by some social classes, but by everyone; it is not exercised from above, but operates at every micro level of the social body; it is not restricted to political and economic areas, but permeates every aspect of life. The most important feature of Foucault’s view of power is that it is not only prohibitive but also productive. By this he means that power generates different types of knowledge and cultural order. Power relations form a kind of war, where various parties attempt to control the modes of behavior in the same domain of actions. During this war, those different micro technologies of power fight and reinforce one another, and end up converging in a global strategy adopted by the majority of the war participants. It is just in the war of power relations that the idea of subject, the rules of truth, and our modes of behavior come into being. The knowledge gathered in this way in turn reinforces the exercise of power.

Foucault proposes several historical forms of his web of power relations, one of which is disciplinary power. By “discipline” Foucault means the “micro-techniques of teaching the body efficient and correct behavior through carefully supervised training and carefully designed surroundings” (Shiner 393). Schools, hospitals, factories and prisons are all organized in a way where people are locked away into small spaces (classrooms, wards, workshops and cells) under the surveillance of a central observer (doctors, teachers, foremen and prison guards). Within these institutions, people are trained to perform the same set of movements; for instance, students are taught to hold a pen in the same way; workmen are trained to tighten the screws with the same gesture. The sense of constant surveillance and the training of body aim at making the body an efficient unit which would waste the least time in performing useful activities. According to Foucault, the most important instrument and technique of “discipline” is “examination” which combines surveillance and training, and turns people into objects of knowledge and self-subjection. Examination forces individuals to follow constructed modes of behavior and records their performance into a data bank which compares theirs with others’ and gives each individual the power to both subject himself/herself and others to those modes of behavior. During this process, people become “cases” which are measured against other “cases” and used by the social sciences to generate further knowledge.

To summarize, Foucault’s anti-method, or genealogy of power-knowledge, is a sharp new tool in the study of intellectual history. Rejecting the Cartesian assumption of a transcendental subject, Foucault largely incorporates the Empirical tradition of subjectivity, and goes beyond it with the analysis of power-knowledge relations. Foucault should not be viewed as a methodologist or theorist, since he develops neither an overall method nor any definitive theory in the sense of a set of unambiguous answers to a set of time-worn questions. What Foucault promotes is an interrogatory practice rather than a search for essentials in the study of history and philosophy.

 

Works Cited

Decker, James M. Ideology. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

O’Farrell, Clare. Michel Foucault. London: Sage Publications, 2005.

Shiner, Larry. “Reading Foucault: Anti-Method and the Genealogy of Power-Knowledge.” History and Theory, 21.3 (1982): 382-398.

 

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