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SS4031: Foucault - The Coercive Power of the Social
Transcript of SS4031: Foucault - The Coercive Power of the Social
SS4031 - Foucault - The Coercive Power of the Social and Social Media
Last week we looked at: discourse as changing social practice and meanings, as making a statement of the people who possess it, and as permeated by power relations...
We are going to explore Foucauldian conceptualisations of power
We will be thinking about specific institutions and concepts which can explain power relations in society
Dreyfus, H. and Rabinow, P. (1983) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Chicago : Chicago University Press, 1983.
Lotringer, S. (1996) Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984. New York : Semiotext.
Lotringer, S. and Hochroth, L. (1997) The Politics of Truth. USA : Semiotext.
Seery, A. (2010) Education, The Formation of Self and the Web 2.0. London: Routledge. Vol.8, No. I. London Review of Education.
Wetherell, M., Taylor, S.and Yates, S. (2004) Discourse, Theory and Practice: A Reader. London: Sage.
Power? - power relations?
Power is everywhere - power as such does not exist
'Power exists only when it is put into action'
French philosopher, historian and social theorist
Foucault states quite categorically that 'when I examine relationships of power, I create no theory of power. I examine how relationships of power interact…I am no theoretician of power. The question of power in itself doesn’t interest me' (Lotringer, 1996, p.360-361).
He resists defining power in a metaphysical way, insisting that 'something called Power…which is assumed to exist universally in a concentrated or diffuse form, does not exist. Power exists only when it is put into action' (Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1983, p.219)
'Power is relations; power is not a thing (Lotringer and Hochroth, 1997, p.155)
Power does not exist in the abstract...Explain...
Are we living in a Panopticon society?
Do the online and the offline have a different set of power relations, how?
Power relations and the social
theorised about the nature of power and how it influences knowledge and how it is used as a means of social control
Foucault was also recognised for the critical study of social institutions, such as medicine, prison systems, psychiatry and social
Foucault, Power and Freedom
First, there is power over actions that can only come into operation where a number of different actions are possible.
Let us take the example of a teacher telling a pupil to sit still at her desk....
In this situation, the pupil is able to act in a range of ways. She might sit still, but equally she might shuffle on her chair, or kneel on the chair, or lean backwards on the chair’s rear legs. Or she might abandon the chair altogether and sit on the desk, or walk across the room to speak to a friend.
Precisely because all these actions are possible, the teacher attempts to exercise power over the pupil by demanding that she sit still.
If the teacher is not successful, she might try different tactics: threatening sanctions, such as deprivation of break time, detention, parental involvement and so on.
This might increase the likelihood of the teacher’s power producing its intended effect, but it would not alter the fact that the pupil is still confronted with a range of possible actions.
Let us now imagine a much more extreme situation, where the teacher forces the pupil to sit still at her desk by using a set of iron shackles fastened to her chair, which is now bolted to the floor.
In Foucault’s terms, the relationship between the teacher and the pupil is no longer one of power, but one of complete physical constraint. The teacher does not need to exercise power over the pupil to make her sit still, precisely because the pupil now has no choice but to do so.
Such deterministic relationships are relatively rare in the Western liberal-democratic societies with which Foucault’s analyses are concerned.
“power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free.” (Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1983, p.221)
The second implication is that power relations are the basic fabric of social life, simply because
“to live in society is to live in such a way that action upon other action is possible – and in fact ongoing. A society without power relations can only be an abstraction.” (Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1983, p.222-223)
The political consequences of this are far-reaching. One cannot hope to liberate society by removing power relations altogether, since this would destroy society. All of this points the way towards one of the most important aspects of Foucault’s work: the attempt to view power as
a set of practices rather than as a commodity.
How can Foucault's ideas
in the metaphor of the Panopticon
be used to explain the power exercised
in different social media?
Modern Society and Disciplinary Power
Discipline and Punish
Pre-modern punishment as
corporeal, public, physical:
The pre-modern punishment as
spectacle; the body is publicly tortured, strung, burned, torn apart. Foucault
does not think modern punishment is
more humane or more improved.
The Carceral Society
Instead Foucault traces the emergence of a distinctively new sort of system of punishment.
A system which is more private, insidious, inconspicuous and controlled.
The Panopticon Society
Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon as a metaphor to explain disciplinary power and surveillance in society.
The design of the Panopticon is circular with a guard observing from the central tower.
The purpose of this design is to make the prisoners' cell as visible as possible and to make it impossible for them to see the guard or whether he was watching or not. This creates a one-way total surveillance of prisoners by the guard.
It is this element of surveillance which Foucault regarded as essential in any exercise of power.
Panoptical surveillance takes several forms and happens in different ways which intersect and overlap but ultimately control the body, behaviours and minds of individuals in society.
Power and social media
With the emergence of the web 2.0, and social media, how might power relations in society be more spread and uneasily institutionalised?
Various research studies on social media explore the re-distribution of social and power relations in society, some point to how the ideas held on 'private and public', 'audience' and 'impact' are deeply impinged by the technology itself and how we become 'networked' in particular digital technologies, such as most social media (boyd, 2014). These are important characteristics of our new networked societies, following Foucault, they are also indicative of power relations in a digital, self-policing society.
The Panopticon is a form of total social control that functions through ‘the gentle efficiency of total surveillance’ (Foucault, 1977: 249) to produce self-policing subjects.
‘He who is subjected to a field of
, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of its own subjection.’ (Foucault, 1977: 202-3)
Arguably, social media increase our visibility, and the searchability, durability and shareability of our content.