WRITINGS  

 

Michel Foucault: Truth and Power

 

In "Truth and Power" Michel Foucault revisits the major theoretical trends and questions of his career. He is a thinker who knows no bounds of subject or field. His ideas stretch from literature to science, from psychology to labor. He deals in a currency that is accepted everywhere: truth and power. Foucault spends much of his career tracing the threads of truth and power as they intertwine with the history of human experience. He especially loves to study asylums and prisons because they are close to an encapsulated power structure. Using techniques culled from psychology, politics, anthropology, sociology, and archaeology, Foucault presents a highly politicized analysis of the flow of power and power relations.

"Truth and Power" is an excerpted version of an interview with Alesandro Fontana and Pasquale Pasquino that initially appeared as "Intervista a Miche Foucault" in Microfiseca del Poetere in 1977. The interviewers first ask Foucault to revisit some of his earlier ideas and trace the path of his career. Foucault began looking at asylums, and tried to create his theories with an eye toward French politics of the Left. He soon turned to evaluating other sciences such as biology, political economy, and medicine, and came up with the concept of discontinuity: "It seemed to me that … the rhythm of transformation doesn't follow the smooth, continuist schemas of development which are normally accepted." The idea of discontinuity became a tag which other critics and thinkers applied to him, much to his dismay. Foucault wanted only to show the susceptibility of the sciences and scientific statements to the pressures of power:

At this level it's not so much a matter of knowing what external power imposes itself on science, as of what effects of power circulate among scientific statements, what constitutes, as it were, their internal regime of power, and how and why at certain moments that regime undergoes a global modification.

This idea echoes Thomas Kuhn's ideas about paradigm shifts in a science, and even reverberates back to Dryden's statements about every age's "universal genius." Dryden stated that in every generation there is a general inclination of thought that affects all disciplines. Kuhn proliferated the idea that major revolutions in science are due to major paradigm shifts.

The discussion then moves to structuralism, where Foucault makes some major statements about the structure of history. Foucault is ardent in asserting, "I don't see who could be more of an anti-structuralist than myself." He claims that structures, formed by the rulers of society, have led to the devaluation of the "event" in their rage to order the general tide of history. Structuralist historians ignore abberant events that do not fit into "those beautiful structures that are so orderly, intelligible and transparent to analysis." Foucault says that the study of history has been based on a model of language that focuses on meaning. He reccommends a different way of evaluating eccentric historical events, rather than writing them off as simply trivial as structuralist historians have attempted:

Here I believe one's point of reference should not be to the great model of language (langue) and signs, but to that of war and battle. The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning.

Foucault believes that the seemingly chaotic occurences of history are conflicts of power. He states that there is an "intrinsic intelligibility of conflicts" that can enlighten us to the reasons behind actions.

Every action and every historical event is seen by Foucault as an exercise in the exchange of power. He has spent a large bulk of his career analyzing the ebb and flow of power in different situations and with relevance to different aspects of human life. Structure organizes and broadens the web of power. The overall volume of power rises with each individual involved in the play. The society is a huge web, and much of the power tends to be concentrated toward the higher eschelons. Foucault sees the exchange of power in very active terms: "isn't power simply a form of warlike domination?" It is difficult to sort out just who is fighting the war, since Foucault seems to lean toward the "war of all against all" notion. Power flows simultaneously in different directions and different volumes according to the various forms of "power relations" in the "network" of power exchange.

Foucault's ideas gravitate toward the ultra-highly complex and similarly politicized, leaving one to wonder what the real-world impact of his notions might be. The interviewers apparently shared this inquiry, and asked how all of Foucault's analysis of power relations could be used in life, and, specifically, what is the role of the intellectual? Foucault responds with a discussion of the the intellectual, who he says has gravitated from a "universal" intellectual to a "specific" intellectual. Foucault sees scientists and scholars who remain cloistered in their field as specific intellectuals, and cites the writers of old as the universal intellectuals:

The intellectual par excellence used to be the writer: as a universal consciousness, a free subject, he was counterposed to the service of the State or Capital – technicians, magistrates, teachers.

Even writers have been coopted in modern society by the structure of the "regime," the group that rules the society, including government and business. The society now looks to the university for its knowledge because of the intersection of multiple fields of study. This has incorporated even written expression into the structure of society and led to the devaluation of the "writer of genius" and the elevation of the "absolute savant." The absolute savant, "along with a handful of others, has at his disposal, whether in the service of the State or against it, powers which can either benefit or irrevocably destroy life." Writers who are sanctioned by a powerful structure now affect reality rather than simply tromping around in idealogical terrain. It woud seem that an intellectual could not be effective without the support of some structure, but Foucault makes an argument for individual efficacy.

The structure is successful because it creates truth, and it is in this recognition that individuals can succeed:

The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn't outside power, or lacking in power … truth isn't the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it includes regular effects of power.

Each society creates a "regime of truth" according to its beliefs, values, and mores. Foucault identifies the creation of truth in contemporary western society with five traits: the centering of truth on scientific discourse, accountability of truth to economic and political forces, the "diffusion and consumption" of truth via societal apparatuses, the control of the distribution of truth by "political and economic apparatuses," and the fact that it is "the issue of a whole political debate and social confrontation." Individuals would do well to recognize that ultimate truth, "Truth," is the construct of the political and economic forces that command the majority of the power within the societal web. There is no truly universal truth at all; therefore, the intellectual cannot convey universal truth. The intellectual must specialize, specify, so that he/she can be connected to one of the truth-generating apparatuses of the society. As Foucault explains it:

'Truth' is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements.

'Truth' is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it. A 'regime' of truth.

Because of this, Foucault sees "the political problems of intellectuals not in terms of 'science' and 'ideology,' but in terms of 'truth' and 'power.'" The question of how to deal with and determine truth is at the base of political and social strife.

 

 

 

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