02 Mar 2010

Sample Essay: Power. A Look at the Work of Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault was a French thinker and philosopher, who brought a different meaning to word power. He is well known for his thinking and critical appraisal of social institutions. He has done extensive work in the areas of human science, prison systems, psychiatry, and medicine. He is well known for his work on Power and its relationship between Knowledge and Discourse.

One of the key earlier works to Power is the Archeology of Knowledge. It is in this work that Foucault states that “Statement” is the fundamental unit of speech and it has a special meaning in the archeology. Foucault postulates that a statement denotes utterances and/or speech acts. It is in this work that he puts forth the argument that the meaning of semantic elements is in-determinable prior to articulation of the same.

Foucault clearly postulates that statements are a network of rules that establish what is meaningful. And that these rules are the pre-conditions for the speech acts to have meaning. And that the meaning of a statement is contextual and is reliant to the statements that are there before and after it. Foucault ensures that he identifies structures of meaning and truth in his texts; His analysts – Dreyfus and Rainbow – imply that Foucault in his texts prefers to ferret the truth rather than analyzing and hiding it beneath the text in some transcendental text. Foucault, it is said, analyzes the discursive and practical conditions for the existence of truth and meaning. From the style and approach taken by Foucault in this text it is amply clear that Foucault does not want the reader to seek interpretations of the text.

Foucault is also well known for his work on Power. It is in this work that he has almost changed the very definition and the traditional concept of power. Prior to this revolutionary approach to Power it was commonly perceived that power is something in the hands of an individual or a group of individuals who can influence, coax or cajole others to do their bidding or in extreme situations even oppress or dominate others.

Foucault brought in a totally new thinking, newer dimension and perspective – He described “power as capillary or diffuse, ultimately forming a force field detached from any human agency, yet pervading the daily existence of individuals on all steps of the social ladder and ordering their lives in the minutest detail (or affecting the way they regulate their own behavior in similar detail)”. This implies that power is something that power is something that is endowed with power and logic of its own, pretty much independent of social factors.

This is a very different perspective, possibly viewing Power under the dynamics of change of the 19th and 20th centuries. This is different from the definition of Power as made out by Gellner’s dentistry state – where in the rulers inflicted some damage or overuse of power over peasants to extract something extra from the subjects while using violence to pre-empt or punish challengers. While this damage inflict happened on one side the rulers played no role in the regulation of daily life of these subjects. This form of governance fit the well disciplined, traditional societies where rules were clear and natural. Also the issue of compliance was ensured by close-up monitoring. The challenge was when these societies began to break up – This was the situation when there was a need for a new breed of social power that would channelize the energies and entropies and also harmonize of people by the newly disembodied populace.

This was the “New Power” that Foucault refers to as the disciplinary power. This is the newer form of power wherein an individual is constantly under monitoring to ensure compliance of their behavior to scientifically designed and accepted norms. It is in the 19th and the 20th centuries that the need for this new kind of power was felt and it became imperative for the governments to create methods and systems for such constant monitoring and “micro-regulation.”

The governments struggled to ensure implementation of such micro-regulation to whole population whose behavior can be scientifically documented, measured, planned and impressed upon. It is suit this situation that the Foucault coined – “bio-power.” And the need for rethinking on the concept of power.

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