LX:91 | Creative Activity

This leads us to what is probably Foucault’s most provocative proposal about power. Power relations, he claims, are “intentional and non-subjective.” Their intelligibility derives from this intentionality. “They are imbued, through and through, with calculation: there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives” (HS95). At the local level there is often a high degree of conscious decision making, planning, plotting and coordination of political activity. Foucault refers to this as “the local cynicism of power.” This recognition of volitional activity enables him to take local level political action fairly literally: he is not pushed to ferret out the secret motivations lying behind the actors’ actions. He does not have to see political actors as essentially hypocrites or pawns of power. Actors more or less know what they are doing when they do it and can often be quite clear in articulating it. But it does not follow that the broader consequences of these local actions are coordinated. The fact that individuals make decisions about specific policies or particular groups jockey for their own advantage does not mean that the overall activation and directionality of power relations in a society implies a subject. When we analyze a political situation, “the logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable, and yet it is often the case that no one is there to have invented them, and few who can be said to have formulated them” (HS95). This is the insight, and this is the problem. How to talk about intentionality without a subject, a strategy without a strategist? The answer must lie in the practices themselves. For it is the practices, focused in technologies and innumerable separate localizations, which literally embody what the analyst is seeking to understand. In order to arrive at “a grid of intelligibility of the social order … one needs to be nominalistic, no doubt: power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical relationship in a particular society” (HS93). There is a logic to the practices. There is a push towards a strategic objective, but no one is pushing. The objective emerged historically, taking particular forms and encountering specific obstacles, conditions and resistances. Will and calculation were involved. The overall effect, however, escaped the actors’ intentions, as well as those of anybody else. As Foucault phrased it, “People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does” (personal communication).

  • HS is Foucault’s A History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction


Dreyfus, Hubert, Paul Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics.  University of Chicago Press, 1983. P. 187.

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