“ The primary and most forceful types of power do not arise through the efforts of strong willed individuals or the influences of the major social institutions or any social contract” Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984)
“ Power arises through the multitudinous, usually unexamined rules that govern social interactions and thereby mold the bodies and minds of people ”
Michel Foucault was more of a social historian than a philosopher, in that he was interested in the ways that the power structures (i.e. government, prison) controlled people over time. Foucault is particularly concerned with classification developed in the human (social/behavioral) sciences to arrive at a concept of human nature.
“ Practices, not intentions must be the subject of study” He referred to humans, or individuals as “subjects” and stated that the self always is the product of social interaction, with the mechanisms of power molding body and mind. He saw people as mere subjects for those in power who took over their bodies and minds to form the “perfect, obedient society”
He emphasizes how the “reform” (beneficial change) has become a “vehicle” of more effective control for those in power: “to punish less, perhaps; but certainly to punish better”. This eventually becomes the model for control over an entire society.
Foucault states that a distinctive feature of disciplinary control is its desire to correct deviant behaviour – where the major goal is not revenge, or to harm the subjects rather to “reform” them, so that they are able to come back into the societies standards or norms.
Knowledge and Human Nature
Human sciences is a term applied to the investigation of human life and human activities through rational (reason), systematic (diversification of life) and verifiable (proving/disproving correctness) methods.
He turns upside down the usual notion that human sciences represent progress in dealing with human beings. For example, we might presume that our sophisticated judicial system has achieved progress by eliminating the execution of criminals for minor crimes such as stealing a loaf of bread, compared with past times. But Foucault might argue that the concepts of crime, criminals, prisoners, and justice developed through the human sciences produces social circumstances worse than those earlier executions for minor crimes .
The ways by which the human sciences have defined human nature are too limiting conceptually and too stifling for human potentialities—all the while proceeding as if they were describing an objective reality. This basically means that right now, human nature is defined as not being able to relate to general ideas, or forming general ideas, and that they (mankind) is being held back from reaching or accomplishing their full potentials.
He created a task that stated: “We cannot separate truth from power; but we can liberate truth from the presently dominating powers”. Maintaining that desire to break free from the social powers that govern our lives and to become more “human” than robot.
Disciplinary Power in Action
This “disciplinary power” amounts to a mechanism of normalization by which people are transformed and controlled: Whether it be the school, the clinic, the asylum, prison, or sexual practices—people are molded to conform to the powers that be.
In Foucault’s writing of disciplinary powers , he constantly refers to the prison system and the creation of Panopticon by Jeremy Bentham. Foucault found that Bentham’s Panopticon, was the ideal model of modern disciplinary power. It was designed for the prisons, where the inmates were separate and invisible from all those around him. The inmates are only visible to those who are watching them, the guards, who watch through monitors. Since the system of surveillance does not always exhibit when prisoners are observed or not observed, the prisoners incorporate a system of self-surveillance within - restricting their actions themselves as if they were being observed (“self-governing”). The overall idea of prisoners constantly being under surveillance during every aspect was to begin the stage of reforming the prisoners, rather than seeking retribution for their crimes.
“ Prison has the advantage of producing delinquency, an instrument of control over and pressure on illegality, a substantial component in the exercise of power over bodies, an element of that physics of power which gave rise to the psychology of the subject.”
Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
"Each society has its regime of truth, it 'general politics' of truth; that is, the types of discourse which it
accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish
true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures
accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who charged with saying what counts as true"
Political power is best understood through the repression and struggles that occur
Another example of the power controlling the people is, the novel, 1984 by George Orwell. Foucault was interested in the way which governments also control the people in their society, this novel serves as another perfect illustration of how the power structures has taken control of their people, dehumanizing them and molding them into mindless robots. Their speech, movements and thoughts are all monitored, the people live in fear of their government and everyone else around them, thus the concept of “panopticon”, which the people begin to self govern themselves, is evident.
The Meaning of Life
Foucault does not create or tag a specific explanation to the “meaning of life” in his philosophy of the human sciences, which leads the individuals to create their own meaning of life in the context he has written. From Foucault’s literary works on his interest of the power structures control on humanity, it would be smart to conclude that a possible “meaning of life” for Foucault would be something that is breaking free or even having no part in the conforming pressures that political powers are pushing onto their society.
What Do You Think?
Where do you think power comes from or should come from? (referring to the quote at the beginning)
Do you agree that what happens in the prisons is a model of what happens in our present society? Is there times when people continue to self govern themselves because they are afraid of those in power? Or even because they want acceptance from those around them?
Do you think we could stop those social powers from conforming the individuals to suit the society?