Monday, August 17, 2015


212. Pervasive power

Here I start a series on power, using the work of Michel Foucault, with some additions, criticism and modifications.
 
Michel Foucault used the customary definition of power as ‘actions upon actions’. Power is the potential, and its exercise, to affect the choices and actions of people. I also adopted that notion, in item nr. 50 of this blog. Thus, power can be positive, in creating novel options, eliminating constraints on choice, or negative, in reducing options or imposing choice.

 When novel options for choice are not just offered but imposed, coerced, power turns from positive to negative. Force of imposition need not be physical. It can lie in threats of position, property, reputation or social acceptance, or in ideological exhortation or seduction, insidious because covert, and presented as all to the good of the self or a collective.

According to Michel Foucault, knowledge is tied up in relationships, social systems, institutions, which constitute and exert power. He famously analysed such systems in psychiatric wards, health clinics, and prisons.

I find this useful, but I do run into the following problem. Institutions are ‘enabling constraints’. They are humanly constructed rules, guidelines, values, models, etc. that enable and guide actions but in doing so necessarily also constrain them. A path through a swamp enables its crossing but also constrains walk to the path, not to drown. A teacher offers a perspective and in so doing focuses and thus narrows attention. Since institutions both enable and constrain actions they entail both positive and negative elements of power. They enact power of normalization.

Heidegger talked of the need and difficulty of getting away from ‘Das Man’, the force of convention.   
Then all institutions entail power. Language, traffic signs, advertising, values, … Since there can be no society without institutions, and no self without society, and institutions are everywhere, power is everywhere. Then, what do we do with the idea that knowledge is tied up with power?

The notion works only when we differentiate specific types (positive, negative) of power, the structure of a system, levels and concentration of power, forms and degrees of subordination and coercion, and bring in associated notions of authority, legitimacy, forms of force, debate, appeal, redress, ….

Foucault in fact did that, by focusing on specific cases (madness, illness, imprisonment). He was, in fact, against intellectual universalism and demanded analysis to apply to specific cases. Here, I do want to add more general considerations. I reject absolute universals but want to maintain generalization by abstraction, as a method of science.

Foucault made a distinction between ‘connaissance’ as state of knowledge, and ‘savoir’ as the process of its constitution[i]. From that I make a distinction between ‘substantive knowledge’ and ‘procedural knowledge’ or ‘being in the know’.[ii] This connects with a distinction between ‘scientific’ and ‘political rationality’. Being ‘in the know’ one knows who is what, in what roles, who are accepted as ‘legitimate speakers’, who has authority in what, what legitimate discourse is, on what subjects, with what terms, with what meanings, according to what logic, on what occasions, and on what locations. Foucault conducted such analysis, as I will discuss in later items in this blog.

Not being ‘in the know’, one will be marginalized, ignored, or disciplined, no matter how much relevant substantive knowledge one has. This is how intellectuals often become ineffective. When in political wrangling a plan of action has finally been arrived at, at great cost of lobbying and compromise, those ‘in the know’ are not going to let themselves be side-tracked by some lone, errant intellectual or band of outsiders. Or even voters.

Earlier, in item 206, I suggested that in the Greek crisis, what happened was that, as I would now say, ‘the Greeks were not in the know’.       



[i] In an interview conducted by D. Trombadori in 1978. See James D. Faubion (ed), Essential works of Foucault 1954-1984: Power, Gallimard 1994.
[ii] Among Dutch policy makers there is the expression of ‘knowing which way the hares are running’.