Foucault contends that power permeates and pervades everywhere. Relationship between power and subjectivity is a defining aspect of Foucault’s key theories, and the subjectivity may be affirmed in its relationship with society and institution. As individual we react to situations in different ways under diverse social conditions. Foucault agrees that power has constructive qualities, a strategy that may co-exist with resistance and not necessarily negative or restrictive. Power shapes the subject’s outlook on the world and self relations are reflections of power relations. Adapting from Paul Oliver, the notion of subjectivity is discussed over discourses on the nature of power, power and the state, power in different historical periods, power and pedagogy, power at both macro and micro levels in personal or communal lives1.
Foucault’s conception of power is a departure not only from classical Marxist dogma, but also differs from others. On the nature of power, Foucault writes “power reaches into the very grain of individuals, touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes, their discourses, learning processes and everyday lives” (Foucault 1980, page 30). He sees power disperses and originates from everywhere rather than wields or dominates by oligarchy or sovereign acts. He advises us to look at power as a system, beyond mere oppression, for even in repression and censorship, new behaviour of subjects emerges, even at mundane level in daily lives. He looks at power relationships between people as impersonal, in the sense of not willed or concentrated by any individual but each has its own hierarchy. Thus power relationship is rooted deep in the social network, not constructed from “above”. By shaping another’s behaviour, whether via intimidation, pressure or other means, is power relation, for it effects or guides the other’s behaviour too. Thus the exercise of power is more about influencing others and changing their thought. Given time and opportunity, institutions and society may also change. Foucault writes about the importance of politics at the micro-societal or personal level that may influence the state on a bigger scale. Revolutions may topple government without really effecting change at all, for instance, the recent “Arab Spring” in the Middle East countries. There is mobilization of counter power resistance, causing social upheaval and political unrest, without achieving the “revolution” goal.
Foucault elaborates that power and knowledge are linked in complex forms of strategies to regulate people’s conduct and shape their behaviour in the assumption of truth, via network and practices around us. Thereby, each society has its own “regime of truth”, a narrative of power that makes us what we are in discursive discourses, reinforced by educational pedagogy, the media, prevailing ideologies and social-economic construct. Transformation of power relations can be achieved by changing social structure and social relations with effective education. Students must be taught not to accept knowledge passively by rote learning. Instead, students learn to challenge or reinterpret existing views for the betterment of society. For empowerment of the education system, teachers and students are encouraged to research on their own and develop newer ideas in discourses.
Foucault argues that in society there are interlinking connections between power, education and knowledge. Each requires the other to generate power to affect the subject of subjectivity. Knowledge of the legal system of the state can effectively challenge the prevailing idea and thus influence change in people’s opinion. The discourses generated can determine whether something is true or false. On the other hand, the power-knowledge bond is achieved through system of social control, by observation, panoptic surveillance, disciplinary regulations in prisons or schools, acceptance of rules, promotion of norms on gender and sexuality, and docility without coercion. With awareness of the expansive power of the state and authorities to observe, monitor and control, the individual feels restricted power and freedom over their lives. Nevertheless, people do not have to succumb to power, and any resistance to the exercises of power generates more power in another direction. At different historical period, different discourses or episteme will arise to replace the existing one, with a new way of thinking, meaning and episteme, so that “truth” can be seen in a new historical context in the discursive shift2, 3. Foucault is against an absolute claim of truth. Hence each society has its “regime of truth” and the will to make things true via discourses which can be accepted as truth.
With regard to knowledge, authority and power, Foucault focuses on how power operates within institutional apparatus and technologies. The former includes punishment, laws and regulations, morality, philanthropy, philosophic propositions, linguistic and other elements, whereas the latter is about technique and strategies of application in specific situation, social context and institutional regime. Echoing Foucault, power is everywhere and everyone exercises it through language at the level of the individual, between langue and parole, deriving meaning over what is true or untrue in their interactions. The power vocabulary and philosophy of Foucault is not easy to read or understand for he gives new meaning or twist to conventional concepts and ideas. His theory of power is not from a single work, but reconstructed from the body of discourses, across multi disciplines, throughout the years. Foucault does not enunciate a doctrine of what is power. He elaborates how power is exercised in action, relationship, and perspective participation, in certain historical context with consequent effect. In short, power is how one entity interacts with another entity to influence the actions of that entity to effect change.
“Power is everywhere” by Foucault (1991) is a very appealing perspective, for it implies the network of power is distributed everywhere in power relations, actions and participation. The talk about diverse, multiple actions in actions in daily participation generating micro power, from small setting to a bigger scale, is the most empowering aspect for the powerless, for instance, in the pre-election year.
Foucault’s “power relations” appeals to me in a dialogue with my six-year-old granddaughter. She visited us some weeks ago and was so appreciative and happy that her mother had her own bedroom with beautiful lace curtains, pictures and toys and small memorabilia. Innocently, she asked me why I was so good to my daughter (her mother), with her own pretty room and possessions. I replied, “Your mum was our only daughter.” “I hope I was her only daughter too.” The language used was simple, for it spoke her feelings and mind. Indeed it would all belong to her. To reprimand her would be exercising “punishment” in relationship of dominance. I followed her flow of feeling experience, “You have a little sister.” “Sometimes she snatched my things away and hit me.” “Yes, she could be naughty. She would learn when she grew up, just liked you. It would be lonely when you had all these things in your room without anyone to play with. Don’t you think so?” “Grandpa, I like to have my own belonging and I like to share and play with others, even with my little sister.” “That’s very good.”
That snippet is an exercise of power relations, influencing the feeling, thinking and conduct of a conduct. If we are afraid of approaching a “taboo” topic, then the child will not have the opportunity to make a proper choice. The same scenario happened when she was very stressed in her “Wu Shu (Kong Fu)” competition. “If you love martial art, you practise more often for the joy of it. Achieve the best, and let your teachers do the rest”, was the advice given. Foucauldian subjectivity on power relations is a reflection of self with reference to another.
In our national education system based on grades and academic merit, we observe power hierarchy and power pressure in schools and colleges, teachers and students, teachers and parents, teachers and principal, principals and the education ministry. It is a relationship of power and knowledge, and not a power relation which facilitates learning, knowledge and discipline. If our school teachers push or relegate the teaching of their academic subjects to tuition centers, instead of shouldering responsibilities as educators, then such “decision making” or negative choice are powerful in the sense of involvement of a vast network of people (students, parents, teachers, principals). The power relations are results of action upon action or conduct upon conduct where mutual trust and respect dissipates in our education system. Our students are taught by rote instead of developing ways of questioning and independence of thought and actions. Many of the current educational pedagogy is Foucauldian inspired or nested in Foucauldian power relations in “ascending analysis”, from “small scale” in family and interpersonal relationship, to “larger scale” in national education system4.
The appeal of subjectivity in Foucauldian critique is empowering for the powerless in Malaysian politics. The unfolding in the political struggle between the government component parties and opposition parties in a pre-election year reveals shift in power relations between ethnic, gender, class and religious groups. Prior to these, many Malaysians live in fear of ISA (Internal Security Act), surveillance by government through the media (including the Internet, e-mail, Facebook, Twitters), CCTV and other spy cameras or spies in public places and institutions. Through the instrument of government (administrative, police, army), it is intended to crush any opposition into submission. As the political and economic fiasco continue to deteriorate, the campaign to cause race, class and religious divide begins to fumble. Group protest and group discussion (blogs, twitters, public places) across race, gender and class divide, begin to question the ruling party’s governance, especially on topics such as corruption, sex scandals, education, immigration, citizenship, religion and the morality of leaders. The political unrest brings its opposite intention – it opens up more discussion and protest among the ordinary people at the micro level. The participation, on a wide network, changes peoples’ experience, feeling and ideas. Thereby it effects conduct on conduct and forms new alignment with another. The Foucauldian perspective of participation allows people the freedom or autonomy to speak, to listen to one another and act on the actions taken. With that power, the individual seeks freedom of expression. Echoing Nick Mansfield in his book (Subjectivity, 2000), subjectivity is reborn to fit into the needs of national political imperative, and affects our conduct to look beyond race and religion, as truly one Malaysian. The exercise of knowledge, in authoritarian ways may cause artificial division of people into distinct categories and function as instrument of power, representing modern imprisonment and punishment/rewards, and blurs the perception of truth. Foucault’s conception of power/knowledge, an indivisible doublet, empowers us to understand power relations in different perspective. Paraphrasing Mansfield, his idea motivates us to explore the “complex interplay between power and language (page 58). The heated controversy about the translation of “God” into the National Language is one such instance where political overplay turns on itself. Politics in religion misrepresents spirituality in language. Ideology needs subjectivity (page 53) through language to affect the subject. In response to that, I compose these lines:
The one and only one was the sole trade mark;
Any other remark was against the monarch.
Ownership of truth was the absolute right;
Birth right barreled out of power of might.
We are all one, except this one magic password;
Gates of heaven open with alphabets was absurd.
Fallen angels chastened with divine sermon;
Fancy the stolen bullion from their brethren.
In conclusion, Foucault is an eclectic thinker. His discourses on power/knowledge are so complex to defy a fixed identity or label. He provides a “perspectival perspective”. In fact, he refuses to be labeled. With whatever limitation in his critique, he rejects any “totalitarian” or closed view on any subject. The appeal on his discourses is on the transformative power it engendered. He has shown how actions acted on actions and conduct acted on conduct in power relations in society.
(Word Count 1958)
1. Oliver, Paul. 2010. Foucault: The Key Ideas. United Kingdom: McGraw Hill Company.
2. Hall, Stuart. 1997. Foucault: Power, Knowledge and Discourses. Reading Seven. http://edst.educ.ubc.ca/sites/edst.educ.ubc.ca/files/courses/Hall-Foucault-power%20knowledge%20and%20discourse.pdf. Cited 01-03-2013.
3. Ballan, Sergiu. Year not stated. M. Foucault’s View on Power Relations. http://cogito.ucdc.ro/nr_2v2/M.%20FOUCAULT’S%20VIEW%20ON%20POWER%20RELATIONS.pdf. Cited 01-03-2013.
4. Gallanhger, Michael. Foucault, Power and Participation. http://www.childhoodstudies.ed.ac.uk/research/MGallagher.doc. Cited 01-03-2013.
Mansfield, Nick. 2000. Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway. New South Wales: Allen & Unwin
Owen, David. Michel Foucault: An Overview. http://www.academia.edu/360153/Michel_Foucault_An_overview. Cited 08-02-2013.
Foucault, Michael. 1982. The Subject and Power, Critical Inquiry. Vol 8 No 4. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343197. Cited 01-03-2013.
Whisnant, Clayton. 2012. Foucault and Discourses. http://webs.wofford.edu/whisnantcj/his389/foucualt_discourse.pdf. Cited 01-03-2013.
Mason, Moya K. Foucault and His Panopticon. http://www.moyak.com/papers/michel-foucault-power.html. Cited 01-03-2013.