The Dissimulation of Law and Power: Michel Foucault

Article excerpt

Victor Hugo's professed decision to have written a vast and serpentine novel in memory of the inscription and later effacement of a single word-anagke: fatality, necessity-- might serve to preface the following investigation of the relationship between law, power and dissimulation in the work of Michel Foucault.1 Aside from the dominant role played by regimes of visibility and invisibility,2 one of the central features of the author's search for the story behind an inscription in the recesses of Notre-Dame is his insistence on working from the bottom up through a series of local and apparently disconnected events. He thereby avoids any centralized account that would authoritatively establish the precise role of the word in the novel. Anagke, along with its French equivalents fatalite and necessite, comes to function as a place holder for various contextually defined uses. If there can be no single answer to the question "what is the meaning of anagke in Notre-Dame de Paris?" it is ultimately because Hugo situates his reader in a matrix of discursive forces lacking any final law that would determine every specific use of the term or concept.3 In other words, the reader is performatively inscribed in an elusive network of linguistic constraints that reveals a surprising proximity with the mysterious anagke that Hugo himself sets out to elucidate. Under the guise of exposing the story behind anagke, Hugo thus surreptitiously positions his reader within it.5 His object of study is concealed in the circuitous and fragmented narrative lines that are supposed to lead up to it, thereby mirroring the very process of dissimulation that accompanies anagke.

This series of themes suggests an immediate affinity with the subject of the present article: the diverse currents at work in Michel Foucault's research on the question of power, particularly in the mid to late 1970s. Rejecting all essentialist attempts at a metaphysics of force that presumes to isolate the defining characteristics of power in a single, abstract and universal idea, Foucault illustrates how power operates at a local level in decentralized constellations specific to precise historical situations. Since power ultimately escapes philosophical abstraction, it is impossible to define it once and for all or even give a general account of Foucault's theory (since, strictly speaking, there is none). The difficulty inherent in discussing Foucault's work on this subject should thus be readily apparent, without mentioning the further complication that it is disseminated through essays, interviews, and passages from various books where he reformulates, corrects, or amends what he says elsewhere, leaving his reader unsure as to which particular description, if any, should be taken as authoritative. Much like Hugo's anagke, Foucault's notion of power not only eludes interpretive abstraction but, as an object of study, it cannot be divorced from the various forces operative in the very act of investigating it.

For this reason, the following analysis will be partially hermeneutic and methodological in nature, in order to contravene some of the dominant tendencies at work in the construction of Foucault's "theory of power": the assumption that nominal notions such as power can be assimilated into abstract, unified concepts; the presupposition that Foucault's research evolved in a relatively homogenous fashion, leading to the progressive maturity of his ideas and their expression; and the tendency to read Foucault's conception of power through pre-existing philosophic schemata. Given these hermeneutic concerns, the investigation that follows will be guided by one central theme in order to circumvent the temptation to give a general account of power. It will focus on the transformation that occurred in Foucault's later writings when certain features of the analytics of power formulated in the 1970s were sacrificed in the name of a binary model of domination and resistance. …