Is Power All There Is? Michel Foucault and the "Omnipresence" of Power Relations

By Lynch, Richard A. | Philosophy Today, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Is Power All There Is? Michel Foucault and the "Omnipresence" of Power Relations


Lynch, Richard A., Philosophy Today


One of the most interesting and perplexing aspects of Michel Foucault's analytics of modern power is the claim that all social relations are inflected by power relations, that "power is `always already there', that one is never 'outside' it."1 What follows, we should ask, from this claim that power relations are omnipresent? Foucault immediately qualifies this statement, noting that the possibility of resistance to power is included within the dynamics of power relations, so power's omnipresence does not imply that resistance is impossible. Nevertheless, this thesis constitutes a very broad claim, one subject to misunderstanding. What is the relationship between omnipresent power relations and other types of social relations, like sexual, economic, and kinship relations? Is Foucault saying, for instance, that power relations are the only-or even the most important-kind of relations present in social situations, or are other kinds of relations omnipresent, too? By explicating Foucault's understanding of power relations' "omnipresence," I hope to answer these questions and show that, for Foucault, this omnipresence entails neither that power relations are the only omnipresent relation nor that power relations are the most important relations in social situations. I suggest that in some cases, we can best understand a social interaction by looking at the power relations between parties; in other cases, while we can and should recognize that power relations are present, they are not the most important for understanding the situation.

Two caveats need to be noted before we begin. First of all, I will not attempt to give a thorough or systematic presentation of Foucault's analytics of power. Although I will delve beyond it, the central point upon which I will focus is the claim that power relations are omnipresent. Second, this argument will be complicated because of the periodization of Foucault's writings. From the publication of Discipline and Punish in 1975 through the late 1970s, in what is often called his "genealogy" or "middle" period, the analytics of power was one of Foucault's central concerns.2 In the 1980s, until his death in 1984, Foucault's interests shifted toward the self's constitution of itself; this was the later period of "ethics."3 The interrelationships between these periods' work are unclear, and some scholars see the turn as a break leaving few if any continuities. I do not want to take up this issue at length. However, we shall see that although Foucault does introduce some new distinctions with respect to his understanding of power, the basic conceptions remain unaltered; in particular, the view that power relations are omnipresent is unchanged. As I draw from sources from both periods, this continuity will be illustrated in the course of my argument.

To understand how it is that power relations are omnipresent, according to Foucault, we must first make a very brief survey of what power relations are. Foucault's most explicit, focused discussion of power relations is given in volume one of The History of Sexuality, from the middle period.4 Power relations, Foucault tells us, are micro-processes, which must be distinguished from the macro-forms in which they often manifest themselves. Such macro-forms, which include state sovereignty and domination of one group over another, are end-products constituted out of many particular instances of the microrelations.5 "It seems to me that power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization."6

These micro-processes, these force relations, are strategic relationships. More precisely, "power" is the effect of interactions between unequal positions in the social landscape. (We can think of these positions as being held by various kinds of agents, such as persons and institutions .)7 "Power's condition of possibility . . . …

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