In this article I will disscuss the relations of power, knowledge and right in the works of Michel Foucalt. Foucault’s relations of power, knowledge and right constitutes a triangular relationship in which power and knowledge can be understood as two sides of the same coin which formulate and perpetuate themselves through discourses. Foucault asserts, that “in any society, there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterize and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated nor implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse.” (Foucault, 1980: 93) For Foucault discourses develop into what he calls ‘regimes of truth’. Foucault’s regimes of truth constitute the ‘way’ in which society – and in particular Western society – organizes itself. In other words, Foucault’s regimes of truth are socially constructed ideas and beliefs from which a society creates its ‘rules of right’. Foucault asks the question, “what rules of right are implemented by the relations of power in the production of discourses of truth”. (Ibid) Foucault wants to know how power relations create the ideas and beliefs, that is, the ‘rules of right’, that produce the predominant worldview or ideology that governs societal norms and behaviour (that which is deemed socially acceptable and that which is not) in any given period. In order to answer this question, Foucaultbelieves that we must re-assess our conventional understanding of what power is. To do this he insists on the need to bypass the problem of Sovereignty and so engages in an archaeological excavation and re-evaluation of the traditional assumptions surrounding sovereign power.
For Foucault, “Right’ in the west is the Kings right”. (Ibid) Foucault believes that the “revitalization of Roman law in the 12th century” underpins the structure of sovereign power adopted and exercised by the monarch. (Ibid) It is from of this discourse of Royal power that Foucault believes the basis of our modern conceptions of sovereign arise. Foucault asserts: “In western societies since medieval times it has been Royal power that has provided the essential focus around which legal thought has been elaborated.” (Ibid) In other words, the right of the king, or Royal right, is merely a reconstruction of the same rules of right adopted by the Roman Empire through the Cesear, namely the rule of the one. Similarly, when Royal or monarchical power collapses with the advent of modern Sovereignty, the basic structure of right remains the same. According to Foucault, even in modern democracy, “the king remains the central personage in the whole legal edifice of the west”. (Ibid 94) For Foucault then, ‘right’ in relation to the triangle of power, knowledge and right, is essentially sovereign right. This point raises a further and arguably more important question for Foucault in relation is his initial one. To remind ourselves, Foucault’s fundamental question is, “what rules of right are implemented by the relations of power in the production of discourses of truth” (Ibid, 93) As we have learned, Foucault’s inquiry leads him to establish that ‘right’ is essentially sovereign right. However, now Foucault is confronted with establishing ‘how’ these discourses of right apply themselves in the construction of the discourses of truth that create our social reality. Foucault approaches this question by looking at the ways in which disciplinary measures are enforced and have evolved since the 18th century.
In “Discipline and Punishment”, Foucault explains how the Monarchic power system was replaced by the democratic one. The symbol of monarchic power was the public execution, whilst that of democratic power is discipline; usually in the form of imprisonment away from public scrutiny. For Foucault, this development constitutes a change in the power relations operating in society. The public execution was the external symbol of royal power exerted from the top down. (The Monarch stood for the power of the nation) This is replaced by democratic disciplinary power that exerts itself through the modern penal system; suggesting that now, power is exerted by the ‘whole’ nation. In today’s world we are no longer directly dictated to by a central authority which attempts to regulate our behaviour, yet most of the time society functions smoothly enough. I know that if do not adhere to certain societal rules and laws that it will not be the end of the world for me. For example, if I steal a loaf of bread, or insult the ‘wrong’ person, I can be reasonably certain, that as a Westerner, I will not be in danger of having my head chopped off. (as in the days of public execution) Of course this is something that I ‘could’ say I am quite grateful for; but who among us deliberates over these matters in this way? We simply take these things for granted, if indeed we consider them at all. For Foucault however, the fact that I will not lose my head for stealing a meal or speaking out of turn is merely a by-product of the shift from monarchic power to democratic power. Foucault would see my belief that I had ‘more’ choices as merely the result of sovereign ideology having been replaced by disciplinary power established and enacted through power relations that permeate throughout society. At this point it is important to understand Foucault’s use of the word power.
When Foucault refers to power he is “not referring to Power with a capital P, dominating and imposing its rationality upon the totality of the social body. For Foucault, there [are] in fact power relations. They are multiple; they have different forms, they can be in play in family relations, or within an institution or and administration.” (Foucault, 1988:38) In contrasting the effects of monarchic power through the graphic imagery of the public execution with democratic disciplinary power and the The Birth of the Prison, it becomes clearer why Foucault needs to bypass sovereign power as a means to re-assess and re-articulate what power actually is and how it effects itself through society . Foucault arrives at the conclusion that an analysis of power “should not concern itself with the regulated and legitimate forms of power in their central locations. It should rather [be] concerned with power at its extremities, in its ‘ultimate’ destinations, in its regional and local forms and institutions; the point where power surmounts the rules of right which organize and delimit it and extends itself beyond them.” (Foucault: 1980:96) Foucault wants to examine the ‘external face’ of power’ which he believes is ultimately effected through social institutions. Hence his inquiry into the development of the penal system in Discipline and Punish.
For Foucault, the Sovereign is not the one with absolute power. Essentially, there is no one exerting power over anyone and no one is having power exerted over them. Rather it is power itself that possesses, that is, power functions through the individual. For Foucault, “individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application”. (Ibid, 98) There is no centre of power from which individuals can be directed, coerced or manipulated. The individual is an effect of power rather than a powerless victim or an affectation of power. Foucault is quick to point out that he is “not dealing with a sort of democratic or anarchic distribution of power.” (Ibid,). Unlike most Marxist thinkers,Foucault is conducting “an ascending analysis of power” and believes that the traditional top down analysis is to be mistrusted. Instead of beginning at the top in exploring the mechanisms of power Foucault insists on approaching it from the bottom and following it back up. For Foucault, this is the only way to ensure that we locate power at its source. Foucault seem to believe that our traditional understanding of power as an ‘oppressive’ force unequally distributeied by the ‘possessors’ of power is theoretically impoverished, and that the cause of this is due to our ‘inaccurate’ ideas of ‘power’ and ‘right’; ideas based on beliefs about Sovereign power that no longer reflect the reality of the way society is constructed. Therefore, this is the reason that it becomes imperative for Foucault to study power outside of the ‘leviathan’, outside of traditional notions of Sovereign power and Sovereign right. Foucault calls for a departure from old conceptions of the state and how it is constructed, and from ingrained belief systems about how power is ‘exercised’ through these structures. In this way Foucaultcompletely discards all anthropomorphic conceptions of power, society and the state. and ultimately aims his inquiry towards a complete re-interpretation of ‘right’.
At the begining of this paper I refereed to what Foucault calls ‘regimes of truth’. At the start of his book Fearless Speech, Foucault asserts: “My intention was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of the truth-teller, or of truth-telling as an activity: who is able to tell the truth, about what, with what consequences, and with what relations to power”. (Foucault, 2001: 7) For Foucault all ‘truth’ is discourse, and all discourse is invented. The invention of discourse is what establishes the ideas and beliefs which constitute the dominant worldview of a society. In this way ideology becomes meaningless. Truth regimes are merely social constructs that are in constant flux. Here we encounter the Nietzschean influence on Foucault. As Horkeimer and Adorno put it in The Dialectics of Enlightenment Knowledge is “an invention behind which lies something completley different from itself: the play of instincts, impluses, desires, fears and the will to appropriate. Knowledge is produced on the stage where these elements struggle against each other”. ( Horkeimer, M, Adorno, T. 1973: 4) In rejecting the traditional notion of the Sovereign, and focusing instead on the powers of true discourses, Foucault challenges, not only our basic assumptions concerning sovereign right, but also those concerning how we construct reality.
For Foucault, ‘right’ is dictated on the basis of the existing truth regime in any given period. As noted, modern Sovereignty, as in the case of Democracy, replaces sovereign ideology with disciplinary measures. In this way discipline becomes the sovereign. For Foucault, ‘right’ is always sovereign right. Between the right of ‘self’ sovereignty and the mechanics of discipline, power is exercised by norms being established through institutions. An excellent example of this is Foucault’s concept of ‘the normalization of the mental’ and its emphasis on how the institutions of psychiatry and psychology determine what is socially acceptable and what is not, as in the case of ‘deviant’ or non-normal states of being or behaviour which leads to a labelization or categorization of the individual for the purpose of classification. If one is classified from the perspective of an existing social institution then one can be normalized within the ‘new’ classification, and so, order and hence discipline is restored. In this way Sovereign right becomes synonymous with social normalization. For Foucault then, knowledge, power and right are interdependent in that each create and sustain the other in a perpetuating, reciprocal triangle of power relations.
Foucault, Michel, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Sheridan, Penguin Books, London: 1977
Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings – 1972 – 1977, trans. Gordon et al, Pantheon Books, New York: 1980
Foucault, Michel, Society must be defended: Lectures at the College de France – 1975 – 1976,trans. Macey, Picador, New York: 2003
Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert, Hurley, Vol I, New York: Pantheon
Foucault, Michel, Critical theory/Intellectual theory, interview with Gerard Raulet, in L. Kitzman (ed), Michel
Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and other writings, 1977 – 1984, Routledge, London: 1988
Foucault, Michel, Fearless Speech, Joseph Pearson (ed), Semiotext: 2001
Horkheimer, M, and T. Adorno, The Dialectics of Enlightenment, trans. Allen lane, Penguin Press, London: 1973