The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1
Part Four, Chapter 2
Foucault's chapter on "Method" defines his theory of power. In the previous chapter, he criticizes the limitations of the "juridico-discursive" conception of power, which sees power as something ultimately exercised to dominate, subjugate, or render a subject subservient. Foucault sees power as all-embracing: everything and everybody is a source of power. Power exists in every relation, and subservience, silence, or subjection do not signify a lack of power so much as a different manifestation of power.
Foucault advances five propositions regarding power. First, power is not a "thing" that one can have or not have; rather, it is always being exercised from all points in any relation. Second, power is not simply applied externally to relationships of economics, knowledge, or sex. Rather, it is inside these relationships and determines their internal structure. Third, power does not simply come down from above, and not all power relationships are formed according to a ruler/ruled model. Rather, power relationships pop up at all levels of society independent of the ruling powers. Fourth, though it is possible to identify designs and strategies in power relationships, there are no individual subjects exercising this power. There is a rationality and logic behind power relationships, but there are no secret cabals or masterminds directing these relationships. Fifth, resistance is a part of a power relationship, and is not external to it. Furthermore, resistance does not usually manifest itself in a solid, steady form. Rather, pockets of resistance pop up in different places and move about as dynamics of power change.
Foucault's analysis of power shows that we cannot discuss sexuality in terms of one unilateral power relation. Rather, we need to examine more closely the diverse power relations that exist around our discourse on sex that lead it to manifest itself in the way that it does. Foucault sets up four rules that serve as guidelines in his investigation:
(1) Rule of Immanence: we must see knowledge and power as always connected. There is no such thing as disinterested knowledge. We must be aware that what we know about sex and the way that we come to learn about sex are both determined by the power relations that motivate our will to know about sex.
(2) Rules of Continual Variation: power does not manifest itself in static relations. Rather, Foucault identifies "matrices of transformation," where the nature of a power relationship may shift over time. Foucault gives the example of child sexuality, where initially children were excluded entirely and the discourse took place between parents and psychiatrists. Later, psychiatrists interviewed children directly, and suggested that the parents were often ultimately responsible for the child's disorder.
(3) Rule of Double Conditioning: all "local centers" of power are parts of larger strategies, and all larger strategies rely on local centers of power, but one does not emulate the other.
(4) Rule for the Tactical Polyvalence of Discourse: Discourse is what joins knowledge to power, and like power itself, discourse works in all sorts of different ways. There is not a simple dominant/dominated relationship in discourse, and silence does not always imply repression.
Power, Foucault concludes, does not take the form of law. Rather, it works on multiple levels and in multiple directions.
This chapter is Foucault's most abstract and theoretical, and it is often difficult to disentangle what he means. The term "power" itself is rather vague. We all have a non-technical understanding of what power is, but Foucault seems to be using the term in a highly technical way. While he is very thorough in explaining what power is and what it is not, he never explains how the concept can be applied. Foucault's conception of power can be compared to the weather. It is ever-present in one form or another, and it is constantly changing. There are dynamic relationships between different kinds of weather that cause changes in weather. We might think of different kinds of relationships between people and institutions as different kinds of weather. These relationships change and shift emphasis over time, and there is always some sort of power relationship emanating from everywhere.
We might compare the juridico-discursive conception of power to a person claiming that only rain or other precipitation is really weather. Such a person would say that clear skies are an absence of or freedom from weather. When it rains, the weather is repressing the sunshine, and when the sun breaks through the clouds, that is because the sunshine has successfully resisted the repression of the weather and has liberated itself. The juridico- discursive conception of power sees power only as a negative, oppressive thing. Foucault replies that this conception only sees half of the picture: power is always there, whether in a repressive role or a productive role.
The analogy of weather also works to describe the five propositions Foucault advances regarding power. The first is that power is not a "thing" that one can have or not have. Like power, the weather is not a "thing" that we can point to. We can point to rain or sunshine as manifestations of the weather, but the weather itself is more abstract. The term "weather" denotes the dynamic relationship between sunshine and cloud, wind and rain. Similarly, power is not a "thing" certain people can wield over others so much as it is the ever-present dynamic relationship between people and institutions.
Second, Foucault claims that power is not external to the relationships it works upon, but determines their internal structure. Similarly, the weather is not external to wind and rain. We do not think of weather as the "cause" of wind and rain, so much as it is the changing process that at this time manifests itself as wind and rain.
Third, Foucault claims that power does not come down from above, but manifests itself at all levels. Similarly, the weather does not simply manifest itself at the grand level of major fronts moving in and out. In a single alleyway, there will be momentary gusts of wind or warm patches that are part of the weather, but cannot be determined by some continental meteorological chart.
Fourth, Foucault claims that though there are strategies of power, there are no individual subjects guiding them. Similarly, we can detect overall trends in the weather, but we cannot identify certain forces as directing these trends.
Fifth, Foucault says that resistance is as much a part of power relations as repression, and that it pops up in irregular ways. Similarly, sunshine is as much a part of the weather as rain, and sunshine comes and goes in different places: it does not make a stand in any particular place (except for maybe Florida) and refuse to budge.
Foucault uses the idea of power primarily in a political context, to talk about the relationships between individuals, ideas, and institutions within society. Power is essentially the force that causes these relationships to change. Our concept of sexuality is built on a number of different relationships: between psychiatrists and their patients, parents and their children, between the law and sexual "perverts," etc. In each one of these relationships, there is a constantly shifting element of power, and Foucault insists that this relationship is never as simple as straightforward repression. Power is also the "productive" force that creates the discourse around these relationships. The power relations that shape the varying discourses on sexuality largely determine the way we think about sexuality. Foucault's goal, consequently, is to examine these different power relations to determine why it is we construe sexuality in the way that we do.
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