Power, Resistance, and the Foucauldian Technologies

By Lloyd, Henry Martyn | Philosophy Today, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Power, Resistance, and the Foucauldian Technologies


Lloyd, Henry Martyn, Philosophy Today


In the introduction of his book Foucault Beyond Foucault, Jeffrey Nealon writes of a "widespread critical consensus concerning the historical development and trajectory of Foucault's work." "Critics," he writes, "seem to have agreed that Foucault's mid-career work constituted a dead-end, a totalizing cage, an omnipresent panopticon with no possibility for any subjective or collective resistance."1 Broadly, the consensus holds that the two books of the "middle" period, Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, fail by virtue of the fact that they are "too successful, too totalizing and demoralizing" and hence show power to be irresistible.2 Hoping to then answer the question of resistance, Foucault develops the themes of his "late" work, turning to questions of ethical resistance, subjectivity, and of making oneself into a work of art.3 Central to this narrative is the idea that there is in Foucault's oeuvre a thematic/conceptual reversal, "a 180-degree turn which occurs between the 'middle' and 'late' work," a move from anti-humanism to a subject-centred humanistic approach, "a renewed appreciation of the Enlightenment subject, the ethical arts of the self, and resistance to normalized totalization through individual action."4 Nealon's documenting of this critical consensus is extensive and persuasive; this essay will rely on this overview without repeating it.

Key to this narrative is the idea of "resistance." It establishes the fact of the "180-degree turn." And it is the idea that has increasingly attracted the attention of commentators and has led to the "late" Foucault's heightened importance in contemporary critical theory: "In the mid-1980s, Foucault's name was virtually synonymous with power . . . today [Foucault is] primarily referenced as a thinker of subjectivity."5 Nealon is correct in marking the "hegemony" of the "late" Foucault;6 it is with this uptake of Foucault that this essay will engage, that is, with the question of Foucauldian resistance and its relationship to the project of artistic self-creation.

By placing so heavy an emphasis on the "turn," the critical consensus certainly overlooks the very substantial continuities that exist in the oeuvre and overlooks much of the rich historical and conceptual detail it contains. This is a source of persistent irritation to specialists well versed in the nuances of Foucault's oeuvre, but in itself this irritation has had little impact on the consensus's focus on broad thematic structures or on the manner in which Foucault continues to be deployed in contemporary critical theory. And in any event there is a marked shift in Foucault's oeuvre, a shift which is the source of the persistent exegetical question of periodization.7 Nealon concludes men that the dominant narrative, at least in its broad outline, is "hard to dispute";8 he notes that the "wrongness" of the consensus readings are not "the major problem with them (of course they are demonstrably 'right' as well)."9 And accordingly, Nealon responds to the dominant reading of Foucault in three main ways, none of which attempt to directly invalidate the consensus itself. First, he returns to the oeuvre to retrieve continuities between the periods and to nuance the idea that Foucault abandoned the "middle" period's interest in power. He does this by relying on the idea of "intensification."10 This is the idea that Foucault's charting of emergent modes of power is an analysis of increasing intensity, "economic visibility," or "saturation": discipline's power over the body is more intense (because more ubiquitous) than sovereignty's power; biopower is more intense again; and this in turn commits Foucault, in the "late" work, "to examining ever-moremicrological sites of power's deployment and functionality."11 The technologies of the self, the practices by which the self cares for itself, are included as being Foucault's analysis of power at its most intense.

Second, Nealon moves beyond the dominant reading's heavy emphasis on the "late" work by showing the continued relevance of Foucault's work on power. …

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