Michel Foucault: ‘Truth and Power’

Foucault’s conception of ‘Power’

Michel Foucault has been instrumental in formulating a radically dynamic theorization of power which attributes to it the positive dimension of producing discursive formations and systems of knowledge through various complex multilayered and polymorphous networks, mechanisms and relations of power. His conceptualization of power also acts a critique of the dominant political theories that revolve around the idea of power as a monolithic repressive entity exercised by a particular oppressive individual, system or class. Foucault’s writings on power are also very closely associated with his investigations into the historical production of truth and knowledge and his conception of discourse.

In the interview, Foucault elaborates a lot about how his understanding of power differs from its treatment in mainstream political theories. Foucault asserts his own position as an attempt to break free of the orientation of political thought toward questions of sovereign power and its legitimacy, “What we need is a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the king’s head: in political theory that has still to be done.” Hobbes Leviathan and the social contract tradition more generally had posed the scope and the legitimacy of the power of the sovereign as the original and fundamental question of politics. But Foucault argued that both the underlying conception of power as sovereign power and the questions of law and right with which it engaged have a historical location in the formation of European monarchy. Foucault concept of power hence theorizes for it to be differentiated historically – “I wonder if it isn’t bound up with the institution of monarchy. This developed in the Middle Ages against the backdrop of the previously endemic struggles between feudal power agencies. The monarchy presented itself as a referee, as a power capable of putting an end to war, violence and pillage and saying no to these struggles and private feuds. It made itself acceptable by allocating itself a juridical and negative function….” The conception of sovereignty that emerges from this historical moment has three crucial aspects for Foucault. First, sovereignty is the standpoint above or outside which particular conflicts were to resolve their competing claims into a unified and coherent system. Second, the dividing question on the basis of which these competing claims are resolved is that of legitimacy: which powers can be legitimately exercised, which powers can be exercised, which actions are lawful, which regimes are legitimate? In the modern epistemology of power, with the state as the representative of sovereign power, it raises the ever contested debates of the illegitimacy of violence against the state apparatus.  This is however based on the legitimacy of the right of the state to exercise violence and the consent generated for the same.  The sovereign is supposed to be the protector of peace in the war of “all against all” and the embodiment of justice in the settlement of competing claims and it is on this parameter that the questions on the use and misuse of power are debated. The third point thereby relates to the specific conception of power that the above two points lead to as the embodiment of law or legitimacy. Sovereign power prohibits, confiscates or destroys what sovereign judgment pronounces as illegitimate.

Foucault argues that it would be a mistake to use this conception of sovereign power that arose with the consolidation of European monarchies to account for the politics and relations of power within a modern state apparatus. The state he argues despite the vast and intricate network and reaches of its apparatuses is “far from being able to occupy the whole field of actual power relations and further because the state can only operate on the basis of other, already existing power relations.” For instance, the marginalization and exploitation of Dalits in India is not just a result of neglect and subjugation by the modern Indian state, but a product of a complex network of power relations under a history of oppression through the caste system and various institutions of religion, commerce and social interaction that long predates even the colonial Indian state under the British.

Articulation of sovereign power as equivalent to the state is hence problematic as power is conceived and exercised in terms of sovereignty in multiple and indefinite social locations, wherever power is deployed to restrain or punish. To quote Foucault, “Whether one attributes to it the form of the prince who formulates rights, or the father who forbids, or the censor who enforces silence…..in any case one schematizes power in a juridical form and one defines its effects as obedience.” To limit consideration of power to the form of a sovereign and a subject, with the state as the equivalent of the sovereign power, thus seriously underestimates the diverse and even polymorphous character of the relations of power extant in our society and leaves unexplained the mechanisms required to connect and consolidate these relations.

Also although sovereignty was conceived as a standpoint of judgment above all particular conflicts, no sovereign power could actually realize this conception in practice. This separation of the principle of sovereignty from its embodiment in any actual sovereign is crucial to understanding Foucault’s position. Sovereignty in this sense has been removed from any real political location, and is instead a theoretical construction with respect to which political practice is to be assessed. Political theories of sovereignty thus fails to recognize the many ways in which power nominally deployed through the state apparatus (or, for Marxists, through the class ownership of capital) is more complexly mediated.

The most significant nature of Foucault’s thesis is his stress on the productive nature of power’s modern exercise. His main aim was to turn a negative conception upside down and attribute the production of concepts, ideas and structures of institutions to the circulation and exercise of power in its modern forms. He forcefully expresses this point in “We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms, it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’………… in fact power produces, it produces reality, it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.” Foucault claims that although many of the political forms and practices of sovereign power remained in place, they were gradually taken over and ultimately sustained on the basis of power relations that functioned at a different location and scale. Increasingly, the sovereign apparatus (such as courts, prisons, the army) became both dependent upon and ‘productive’ of disciplinary and regulatory power. These power relations were disseminated through more extensive social networks, and did not transmit power in only one direction. They did not simply impose sanctions that might be amenable to a binary classification as legitimate or not. They were instrumental to the production or enhancement of various “goods,” such as knowledge, health, wealth, or social cohesion. Foucault thus sees the “new economy of power” as productive, which produces discourse operating through and leading to the production of various episteme and systems of knowledge: “Power traverses and produces things; it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, and produces discourse.”

According to Foucault, disciplinary power is one of the great inventions of bourgeoisie society and is one of the primary means through which this type of social cohesion is maintained. Disciplinary power produces ‘practiced’ bodies, it ‘increases’ the forces of the body (in terms of economic utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms to obedience), appropriating ‘time and labour’ of human beings rather than ‘wealth and commodities’. Capitalism would not have been possible without the controlled ‘insertion’ of bodies into production processes. In his interview, Foucault thus argues, “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a form of power comes into being that begins to exercise itself through social production and social service…..and in consequence a real and effective ‘incorporation’ of power was necessary” Thus, there was an appropriation of an individual’s body and modes of everyday existence through disciplining mechanisms like schooling etc. There was then a simultaneous need for the administration, control and direction of people as a population into a system that promotes accumulation of capital. This thereby produced problems of demography, public health, education, housing, longevity and fertility towards efficient utilization of resources for maximum profit.

However, these processes of normalization associated with disciplinary power do not necessarily produce conformity or monotonous regularity of identities. Foucault argues it is these relations of disciplinary power and techniques of normalization that produces the modern ‘individualized’ subject. One of the prime effects of disciplinary power was to produce, precisely ‘individuality’ – “procedures which allowed power to circulate in a manner at once continuous, uninterrupted, adapted and “individualized” throughout the entire social body.”(Foucault) Differences, peculiarities, deviance and eccentricities are even more highlighted in a system of controls concerned to seek them out. The intention may have been to produce regularity, but the effect is quite the opposite: a multiplicity of disparate and varied identities. Individuality is a modern phenomenon. Foucault thus argues that power in its modern context is not to be seen as a repressive force that crushes individuality, but in fact “it is  one of the prime effects of power that certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses come to be identified and constituted as individuals.” In the interview, Foucault deals with the example of infantile sexuality. He elaborates how, much before Freud, in almost all books on pedagogy and child medicine, and in instruction manuals for children during the eighteenth century; children’s sex was constantly being spoken of and in every possible context. This disciplinary power techniques for a sanction of child sexuality while advocating parental and societal control and surveillance lead to the production of the child as an individualized “sexual subject”. There was a sexualizing of the familial domain and children were made aware of their relationships with their own bodies. Hence to quote Foucault, “Sexuality was far more of a positive product of power than power was ever a repression of sexuality”.

Foucault rejects the concept of any reification of power. He insists that power is not something that someone acquires, seizes or shares. Joseph Rouse draws on Thomas Wartenburg’s discussion of power in “The Forms of Power: From Domination to Transformation” to understand Foucault’s claim. Wartenburg conceptualizes power as being always mediates by “social alignments” — “A field of social agents can constitute an alignment in regard to a social agent if and only if, first of all, their actions in regard to that agent are coordinated in a specific manner. The coordinated practices of these social agents need to be comprehensive enough that the social agent facing the alignment encounters that alignment as having control over certain things that she might either need or desire.” The concept of a social alignment thus provides a way of understanding the “field” that constitutes a situated power relationship as a power relationship. Wartenburg thus argues that even in situations when we might think that a person is acting independently from a position of power, his ability to use this power or his so- called position of power is mediated by complex relations with various social alignments. Power is hence then dispersed across various layers and structures and is not found in a static locus. In Wartenburg’s examples, when teachers grade students or employers discipline or fire employees, they exercise power only when others (the school admissions officers, or possible future employers) act, or are prepared to act, in ways oriented by their own actions. Agents may thereby also exercise power unbeknownst to themselves, or even contrary to their own intentions, if other agents orient their actions in response to what the first agents do. It is in this context that we can understand Foucault’s assertion that “power is everywhere not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere”.

Power is not possessed by a dominant agent, nor located in that agent’s relations to those dominated, but is instead distributed throughout complex social networks. The actions of the peripheral agents in these networks are often what establish or enforce the connections between what a dominant agent does and the fulfillment or frustration of a subordinate agent’s desires. Certainly this is then true of a power exercised discreetly through surveillance and documentation. Foucault goes on to emphasize the heterogeneity of the alignments that dispose power. They include not just agents but also the instruments of power (buildings, documents, tools, etc.) and the practices-and rituals through which it is deployed. This sense of power as dispersed emphasizes the importance of what Foucault called the “swarming” of the disciplinary mechanisms; those mechanisms were thereby transformed from a local exercise of force within the confines of a particular institution into far-reaching relationships of power. Power can thus never be simply present, as one action forcibly constraining or modifying another. Its constitution as a power relation depends upon its reenactment or reproduction over time as a sustained power relationship.

Within Foucault’s theorization of power, is also the enabling concept of the positive production of resistance. Resistance cannot be external to power, because power is not a system of domination with an inside or an outside. Here, once again, Wartenburg’s conception of power as mediated by dynamic social alignments can help us understand Foucault. Power is exercised through an agent’s actions only to the extent that other agents’ actions remain appropriately aligned with them. The actions of dominant agents are therefore constrained by the need to sustain that alignment in the future; but, simultaneously, subordinate agents may seek ways of challenging or evading that alignment. Foucault’s conception of power relations in terms of war elevates this sense that resistance to specific alignments of power is always possible to a conception of power as itself the outcome of ongoing struggles to sustain or undermine networks of domination Power is not something possessed or wielded by powerful agents, because it is co-constituted by those who support and resist it. It is not a system of domination that imposes its rules upon all those it governs, because any such rule is always at issue in ongoing struggles.

Thus, to conclude, in Foucault’s conceptualization of the dynamics of power — power is dispersed across complicated and heterogeneous social networks marked by ongoing struggle. Power is not something present at specific locations within those networks, but is instead always at contention in ongoing attempts to (re)produce effective social alignments.


1. Alec McHoul, Wendy Grace, A Foucault primer: discourse, power and the subject” (1993)

2. Iain McLean, Alistair McMillan “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics” (1996)

3. Charles Taylor, “Foucault on Freedom and Truth” (1984)

4. Gary Gutting, “The Cambridge Companion to Foucault” (2005)


1. Alec McHoul, Wendy Grace, A Foucault primer: discourse, power and the subject” (1993)

2. Iain McLean, Alistair McMillan “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics” (1996)

3. Charles Taylor, “Foucault on Freedom and Truth” (1984)

4. Gary Gutting, “The Cambridge Companion to Foucault” (2005)

One Response to “Foucault: Power”

  1. Anshika Says:

    My literary theory paper is on 22nd, my last exam of BA. My teacher’s lectures were not helpful. I think you just saved my life. Eternally grateful.

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