Foucault, Michel. 1982. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry 8 (4): 777–95.
“My objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different modes [of objectification] by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects.” p. 777.
If this statement is accessible to you, you can skip this rather protracted introduction (to the first section of the article). If not, do not proceed without first reading this.
The word ‘subject’ has many meanings. The Oxford Dictionary lists as many as fourteen. As such, it is easy to get confused when you encounter its numerous derivatives, mixed with its opposite, i.e., object, which comes with its own set of meanings and derivatives.
Here is a brief introduction to the subject–object dichotomy in philosophy penned with a view to clarifying the myriad ways in which their derivatives — subjective, objective, subjectivity, subjectification, objectify, objectification, and so on — are used in mundane [as well as?] philosophical discussions. Clarity in this regard is particularly crucial for understanding Michel Foucault. Their use and connotations outside of philosophy are mentioned where necessary.
Very crudely, a subject is conscious and an object is unconscious. We, humans, as conscious beings, are subjects. Whatever is external to us — stones, buildings, colours, etc. — are objects.
In this last paragraph, a crucial gap has opened up. The gap is this: how should I, as a subject, treat other humans, who, even if they are subjects in their own right, are nonetheless external to me, and therefore, objects as far as I am concerned? One straightforward way is to objectify them. But what if you can determine their very subjectivity (see next paragraph)? Foucault argues that this is what power does. Of course, in Foucault, the ‘you’ doing the determining is not the individual person but rather the whole complex of the modern state and the ‘they’ being made subjects is everyone.
What creates the distinction between the subject and object is the ability of the subject to experience, feel, or think (or, in other words, to be conscious). To use jargon, subjects possess subjectivity. Objects, on the other hand, do not. Rather, they are experienced and felt. Put another way, subjects are active, i.e., they have agency, while objects are passive. (It is easy to see the reason behind the distinction made in grammar between active and passive voice.)
The following might throw some light on the way we use objectification, subjective and objective — words which have philosophical significance — in daily conversation.
- To charge someone of, for instance, objectifying women, is to say that that person is treating women as if they possessed no subjectivity, i.e., as if they were passive objects unable to determine themselves what they are. This points to the gap I mentioned above.
- To say that someone is merely expressing a subjective viewpoint is to simply say that the truth of that viewpoint depends on the subject himself/herself. That viewpoint may not be shared by somebody else, i.e., another subject. This is common while making aesthetic judgements. What is beautiful for me may not be to you.
- To say that someone is stating an objective fact is to say that the truth of that statement depends on the object. If proper care was taken in formulating that statement, other subjects would have to agree with it. This is common in scientific inquiry. The inexorable march of science is built, we are made to believe, upon its obsession with objective facts. [Objective, as a noun, also means a goal, a purpose. But this meaning is unconnected to what is described here.]
In relation to Foucault, the word ‘subject’ has two broad meanings. First, it connotes the thinking, feeling, conscious being possessing subjectivity, as is understood in philosophy [and also in the senses in which it is understood in grammar and logic]. We have encountered this already. The origin of this connotation goes back to (the Latin translation of) a Greek term coined by Aristotle. In many important instances, this is what Foucault means by ‘subject’.
Second, the word ‘subject’ also ordinarily means a person or thing towards whom or which action, thought, or feeling is directed. It is in this sense that the sentence “I was the subject of a police investigation” can be understood. As a verb, in this sense, ‘subject’ would mean the process of directing actions, thoughts and feelings. Consider the sentence “I was subjected to torture during the investigation”. The origin of this connotation is, the Oxford Dictionary informs us, Middle English.
The problem — and I grappled with this when I first encountered this article about two years ago, often ending in despair — lies in figuring out which of these senses is meant. Often, it’s the former. Other times, it’s the latter. These two uses are usually obvious. But sometimes, and this is where it becomes tricky, both are meant simultaneously while, rarely, thankfully, the derivatives are used consecutively in different senses. See the last two complete paragraphs at page 781 for examples of these two uses. These issues of usage will have to be kept in mind while reading the text.
Let us now consider the sentence that I opened with: “My (i) objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different modes [of (ii) objectification] by which, in our culture, human beings are made (iii) subjects.” p. 777.
(i) Objective means purpose in this context. That’s obvious.
(ii) By modes of objectification, Foucault is referring to the ways in which the agency, self-knowledge, or individuality of the subject is determined or controlled by, to use his examples, the sciences, by institutions, or even by the subjects themselves.
(iii) But at the end of all this, human beings still remain subjects possessing agency except that whatever agency or subjectivity they have is not really their own.
Why Study Power?
The Question of the Subject
My goal has been to analyse the ways in which human beings are made subjects. There have been three modes of objectification which have made this transformation possible.
First, there are the sciences such as grammar, philology and linguistics, economics, and biology whose classificatory endeavours have objectified the speaking subject, the labourer and the very living being. Second, there are dividing practices which have objectified subjects by dividing them within or from others. Consider the division between the mad and the sane, the sick and the healthy, the criminals and the “good boys”. Third, there is the process of subjectification whereby humans turn their very selves into subjects. Consider the identification of people with certain forms of sexuality.
The general theme of my work thus has been “the question of the subject”. But I have had to “study power” because the existing legal model (the question of what legitimises power) and institutional model (the question of what is the state) of understanding power were insufficient to account for the objectification of the subject.
The dimensions of power have to be expanded.
It is important in this regard to start from forms of resistance against power and analyse power relations through the “antagonism of strategies”. “For example, to find out what our society means by sanity, perhaps we should investigate what is happening in the field of insanity. And what we mean by legality in the field of illegality.”
“As a starting point, let us take a series of oppositions which have developed over the last few years: opposition to the power of men over women, of parents over children, of psychiatry over the mentally ill, of medicine over the population, of administration over the ways people live.”
These struggles cut across state boundaries. They are against the effects of power as such as opposed to the exercise of power. They are immediate struggles — both temporally and spatially. They assert individuality. They are opposed to the privileges of knowledge and forms of imposition on people. They ask “Who are we?”, i.e., they are directed towards determining ones own subjectivity.
“To sum up, the main objective of these struggles is … to attack a technique, a form of power. This form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects. There are two meanings of the word ‘subject’: subject to someone else by control and dependence; and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to.”
“Generally, it can be said that there are three types of struggles: either against forms of domination; against forms of exploitation which separate individuals from what they produce; or … against subjection, against forms of subjectivity and submission.” While the struggles against forms of subjection have become salient, struggles against domination and exploitation have not disappeared.
They reason why this form of struggle has become salient in this century is the rise of the modern state. The state totalises its power in the sense that it seeks to look after the totality of its subjects, i.e., the population. [For more on this aspect, see his essay “Governmentality”, summarised here.] But it also individualises.
Never, I think, in the history of human societies ... has there been such a tricky combination in the same political structures of individualization techniques and of totalization procedures.
In saying that the state power is individualising, I mean that the state exercises a form of power which is seeks the production of truth of the individual. This is a form of power that is analogous to the role played by pastors in Christianity, and hence may be called pastoral power. Pastoral power, in its religious context, aims at salvation, is sacrificial, is oriented towards the individual, and demands that the individual reveal his conscience and his innermost secrets. The modern state exercises secularised versions of these aspects of pastoral power. The welfare state with its commitment to the health and well-being of its citizens is engaged in ensuring worldly salvation. The surveillance state with its hunger for data on its citizens is analogous to the Catholic priest who has access to the innermost details of those who come to confession.
The conclusion would be that the political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate the individual from the state and from the state's institutions but to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualization which is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of individuality which has been imposed on us for several centuries.
How Is Power Exercised?
Analyses of the question of the “how” of power are generally limited to inventorying its manifestations. But are not these manifestations or effects of power linked to its origin and basic nature?
How is power exercised?
The “how” I have in mind is not the question of how power manifests itself but the question of the means by which power is exercised. Power implies an objective capacity to exert force over things and the ability to modify, use, consume, or destroy them. Power also implies relationships between individuals or groups in that in any discussion of the mechanisms of power, we suppose that certain persons exercise power over others.
There are relationships of communication, i.e., transmission of information by means of a language, a system of signs, or any other symbolic medium, through which persons act upon others. However, if the objectives or consequences of such relationships have results in the realm of power, it is only incidental. The point is that objective capacities, power relations, and relationships are not to be confused for one another. At the same time, they are not to be treated as three separate domains. In fact, they “always overlap one another, support one another reciprocally, and use each other mutually as means to an end”.
The application of objective capacities in their most elementary forms implies relationships of communication (whether in the form of previously acquired information or of shared work); it is tied also to power relations (whether they consist of obligatory tasks, of gestures imposed by tradition or apprenticeship, of subdivisions and the more or less obligatory distribution of labor). Relationships of communication imply finalized activities (even if only the correct putting into operation of elements of meaning) and, by virtue of modifying the field of information between partners, produce effects of power.
Across different societies, the coordination or relation between these three types of relationships is neither uniform nor constant. Rather, there are diverse specific models.
“But there are also ‘blocks’ in which the adjustment of abilities, the resources of communication, and power relations constitute regulated and concerted systems.” Consider an educational institution whose constituents constitute a block of capacity–communication–power. “The activity which ensures apprenticeship and the acquisition of aptitudes or types of behavior is developed there by means of a whole ensemble of regulated communications (lessons, questions and answers, orders, exhortations, coded signs of obedience, differentiation marks of the ‘value’ of each person and of the levels of knowledge) and by the means of a whole series of power processes (enclosure, surveillance, reward and punishment, the pyramidal hierarchy).”
Blocks like this constitute a ‘discipline’. Disciplines provide a view into the ways in which the constituents components — the capacity–communication–power triad — are welded together as well as the varied ways in which their interrelationships are articulated.
“To approach the theme of power by an analysis of ‘how’ is therefore to introduce several critical shifts in relation to the supposition of a fundamental power. It is to give oneself as the object of analysis power relations and not power itself.”
What constitutes the specific nature of power?
“[S]omething called Power, with or without a capital letter, which is assumed to exist universally in a concentrated or diffused form, does not exist. Power exists only when it is put into action.” That’s to say that power exists as a relation. What defines this relationship is that it is a mode of action which acts only indirectly; it is an action upon an action, on existing actions or on those which may arise in the present or the future. This requires that the one over whom power is exercised be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts, i.e., as a subject.
In itself the exercise of power is not violence; nor is it a consent which, implicitly, is renewable. It is a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions; it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action. A set of actions upon other actions.
The specificities of power relations can be better understood through the word conduct which means both (as a verb) to lead others and (as a noun) a way of behaving. The question of power is a question of government. Government in this sense refers not only to political structures or to the management of states but also the structuring of the possible field of action of others.
To understand power in this way — as a mode of action upon the actions of others, or as the government of men by other men — is to presuppose free subjects over whom power is exercised, and that too, only insofar as they are free subjects.
[S]lavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains. (In this case it is a question of a physical relationship of constraint.) Consequently, there is no face-to-face confrontation of power and freedom, which are mutually exclusive (freedom disappears everywhere power is exercised), but a much more complicated interplay. In this game freedom may well appear as the condition for the exercise of power (at the same time its precondition, since freedom must exist for power to be exerted, and also its permanent support, since without the possibility of recalcitrance, power would be equivalent to a physical determination).
“At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom. Rather than speaking of an essential freedom [then], it would be better to speak of an ‘agonism’ — of a relationship which is at the same time reciprocal incitation and struggle, … [of] a permanent provocation.”
How is one to analyze the power relationship?
[This section has extracts only.]
“One can analyze such relationships … by focusing on carefully defined institutions. [Institutions] constitute a privileged point of observation, diversified, concentrated, put in order, and carried through to the highest point of their efficacy. It is here that, as a first approximation, one might expect to see the appearance of the form and logic of their elementary mechanisms.
“The analysis of power relations demands that a certain number of points be established concretely:
- The system of differentiations which permits one to act upon the actions of others: differentiations determined by the law or by traditions of status and privilege; economic differences …
- The types of objectives pursued by those who act upon the actions of others: the maintenance of privileges, the accumulation of profits …
- The means of bringing power relations into being: according to whether power is exercised by the threat of arms, by the effects of the word, by means of economic disparities, by more or less complex means of control …
- Forms of institutionalization: these may mix traditional predispositions, legal structures, phenomena relating to custom or to fashion (e.g., a family); they can also take the form of an apparatus closed in upon itself, with its specific loci, its own regulations, its hierarchical structures which are carefully defined, a relative autonomy in its functioning (e.g., military institutions); they can also form very complex systems endowed with multiple apparatuses (e.g., the state) …
- The degrees of rationalization: [to what extent the play of] power relations as action in a field of possibilities [are] more or less elaborate in relation to the effectiveness of the instruments and the certainty of the results …
“[Thus,] one sees why the analysis of power relations within a society cannot be reduced to the study of a series of institutions, not even to the study of all those institutions which would merit the name ‘political’. Power relations are rooted in the system of social networks. … In referring here to the restricted sense of the word ‘government’, one could say that power relations have been progressively governmentalized, that is to say, elaborated, rationalized, and centralized in the form of, or under the auspices of, state institutions.
Relations of power and relations of strategy
“The word ‘strategy’ is currently employed in three ways. First, to designate the means employed to attain a certain end… . Second, to designate the manner in which a partner in a certain game acts with regard to what he thinks should be the action of the others and what he considers the others think to be his own… . Third, to designate the procedures used in a situation of confrontation to deprive the opponent of his means of combat and to reduce him to giving up the struggle… . These three meanings come together in situations of confrontation … where the objective is to act upon an adversary in such a manner as to render the struggle impossible for him. … But it must be borne in mind that this is a very special type of situation and that there are others in which the distinctions between the different senses of the word ‘strategy’ must be maintained.” (emphasis added)
There can be no relationship of power without the potential for a strategy of struggle. This is because, to quote again what has been said before, “at the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom”. A capacity for struggle (for freedom) is the precondition of power.
This relationship of confrontation between power and struggle is an unstable one and if it attains stability, it would mean that one of the two has won out. When the confrontation is stabilised, the power relationship becomes at once its (the confrontation’s) target, fulfillment, and suspension while the strategy of struggle becomes a limit, a frontier for the relationship of power.
Which is to say that every strategy of confrontation dreams of becoming a relationship of power, and every relationship of power leans toward the idea that, if it follows its own line of development and comes up against direct confrontation, it may become the winning strategy.