Although the interrogation of power on a wider scale is implicit in Derrida’s deconstruction of logocentrism- the belief that language provides access to truth — the interest in power and its workings that dominates the poststructuraiist criticism of the 1980s and ’90s derives mainly from the work of Michel Foucault. He argues that power is immanent in all social relations and that all social relations are relations of power, whether in family or in the hierarchies of government and others social institutions.
Foucault’s originality lies in discerning the underlining structures of power that informed “neutral” scientific inquiries. He argued that some section of population were classified as sick, criminal and mad so that they could be placed under surveillance and “observed” by particular authorities. The surveillance was coded as a discourse, a terrain of thought, a system of knowledge, a particular kind of language that allowed some things to be said and disallowed some others.
Foucault’s concept of power has much in common with Althusser‘s “ideology” and Gramsci‘s “hegemony” because it rules by consent. In the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the patients who have had themselves committed genuinely believe that they are misfits and need treatment. Foucault’s “power”, just like “ideology” and “hegemony”, derives its strength from the fact that the subjects deeply believe in what it tells them, for it gives a sense of belonging and contributes to their well-being.
Foucault underscored the discursive basis of power, social relations, and institutions by showing how the so-called “objective” disciplines like the sciences relied upon underlying assumptions about the object to be investigated, used particular forms of language and thought in order to talk about this object, and eventually constructed an institution around the object for its study and control.
Foucault’s genealogical and archeological analyses of discourses involves a non-linear, conflictual and contradictory historical account of those discourses or institutions that have formed our ideas of sexuality, sickness, criminality, madness, morality etc. revealing how dominant power structures maintain their superiority over the margins through the creation of particular discourses. He regards discourse as a central human activity, but not as a universal “general text”, a vast sea of signification. He is interested in the historical dimension of discursive change. Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality show that various forms of knowledge about sex, crime, psychiatry have arisen and been replaced. He concentrated on the fundamental shifts occurring between epochs. He offers no period of generalizations, but traces the overlapping series of discontinuous fields and points out that history is this disconnected range of discursive practices.
According to Foucault, power-knowledge discourse does not mean “knowledge is power.” It is a relationship that shows how certain knowledge is suppressed and other knowledge is produced through power. Power produces knowledge as well as suppressed knowledge. This Foucauldian insight informs Edward Said‘s foundational work Orientalism (1978), which points out the extent to which “knowledge” about the Orient as it was produced and circulated in Europe was an ideological accompaniment of colonial “power.”
Foucault’s conception of power has underlain his argument on sexuality. He eschewed the conventional notion of power that is based on “juridico-discursive model.” This conception of power is essentially juridical, based on the statement of the law and taboo, and is seen as straightforwardly restrictive and repressive. Such conception of power, deriving from the development of monarchic power and the concept of right, says Foucault, overlooks precisely what makes power so effective and accepted. New methods of power, he maintains, operate not “by right, but by technique, not by law, but by normalization, not by punishment, but by control.” And in order to operate effectively, power must mask at least part of itself.
Foucault insists that power “is everywhere, not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.” He acknowledges there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject.” He also concedes that “where there is power, there is resistance, and yet..this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.”