Tag Archives: habermas

Another college essay. I found writing this useful in clarifying my understanding of subjectification in Foucault, perhaps others will too.

[I]t is not power, but the subject, which is the general theme of my research.” Explain what Foucault means by this remark.

Foucault’s works are often read as theorising a kind of cold monolithic structuralism, in which power is determinate and human subjects are merely its passive products, whose conscious intentions are more or less irrelevant. (Heller, 1996, pp. 78-9) Indeed, when Foucault tells us, for example, that “individuals are the vehicles of power” and that “[t]he individual… is not the vis-a-vis of power… [but] one of its prime effects” (Foucault, 1980, p.98), it is difficult not to envision the human subject as merely a leaf caught in a storm, helplessly blown this way and that by monstrous flows that are essentially beyond her control. Does Foucault’s picture of modernity, as Habermas (1986, p.106) alleges, not simply reduce to “a senseless back-and-forth of anonymous processes of subjugation in which power and nothing but power appears in ever-changing guises” – power as the real subject of history, abstract and inhuman? And yet Foucault insists that his analytics of power is secondary to his interest in subjectivity. (Foucault, 1982, pp. 208-9) My aim here will be to offer an explanation of Foucault’s interest in the subject in the light of the apparent structural determinism that is so often attributed to him, which entails discussion of (1) the relationship between power, the subject and resistance in Foucault, and (2) Foucault’s approach to theory as a desubjectifying and transformative practice.

Foucault claims that the central concern of his work is to produce “a history of the different modes by which… human beings are made subjects”. His work focused primarily on three inter-related modes of subjectification: (1) the modes of inquiry (sciences) which produce the human subject as an object of knowledge, (2) “dividing practices” which divide the subject both within herself, and from other subjects according to a binary logic of norm and deviance, and (3) practices of self-governance by which the subject (re)produces and transforms herself as subject. Within these modes of subjectification, Foucault detected a form of power for which traditional modes of inquiry lacked adequate analytical tools, that is, a form of power whose effect is to attach the subject to her own identity: “a form of power which makes individuals subjects”. (Ibid., p.212) For Foucault, the analysis of this subjectifying power entailed a shift to the outside in relation to traditional understandings of power. The conception of power as coextensive with the will of the sovereign (the juridicial conception of power, as it appears e.g. in Hobbes’ Leviathan) is rejected by Foucault, (Foucault, 1980, p.97) as it the theorisation of power based on the immanent logic of institutions (the conception of power in terms of the problematics, functions, and objects presumed by institutional logics). (Foucault, 2009, pp.117-8) Rather, Foucault seeks to analyse power in terms of strategies, but insists on a form of strategic analysis in which strategy is not conflated with the intentionality of a subject: “Power relations are both intentional and non-subjective… they are imbued, through and through, with calculation… but this does not mean [they] result from the choice or decision of an individual subject”. (Foucault, 1998, pp.94-5) Power relations are an immanent feature of human relationships, and arise wherever one acts on the action of others to constrain or direct the present or future effect of potential of that action. (Foucault, 1982, p.220) There is no power as such as a kind of universal substance, but rather powers which are immanent to relations between subjects and exist only through their application (Ibid., p.219)

Thus, in contrast to phenomenology, for which the subject is a kind of primary transcendental substance (Foucault, 1991, p.31), Foucault’s subject is always already implicated in circuits of power, an emerges in the context of a strategic field where she is always simultaneously undergoing and exercising power, and it is within this context of the strategic interplay of power relations that “certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain desires come to be constituted as individuals” (Foucault, 1980, p.98) – a kind of folding or doubling of the field of force relations, in which the subject is always the product of the interiorisation of her relations with the Other. (Deleuze, 1988, p.98) Foucault’s subject, then, is neither a radically free or self-originating agent nor the passive interpellate of some overdetermining structure, but is always in some sense an active participant in the interplay of power relations which produce her as a subject. Consequently, resistance is always possible – the exercise of power is always vulnerable to reversals, disruptions, refusals – but resistances never originate from a position of exteriority to power, rather a plurality of points or strategies of resistance exist within the web formed by power relations, as its immanent and irreducible opposite. (Foucault, 1998, pp.95-6)

Foucault’s interest in subjectivity, then, can perhaps be summarised as seeking to understand the power relations which form us as subjects and the strategies by which we might seek to transform the power relations to which we are subject and thus transform ourselves as subjects. Theory itself, for Foucault, can be such a transformative strategy. Inspired by the works of Nietzsche, Blanchot and Bataille, Foucault conceives of theoretical practice as a kind of desubjectifying “limit experience”, such that the subject is torn from herself and produced as something other than herself. Foucault’s historical inquiries (however rigourous) are concerned only secondarily with the production of truths – the primary concern is that of the experience of history as a transformation of the self, as the production of new understandings and new relations to the present. (Foucault, 1991, pp.30-6) “A book… is a little machine” (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013, p.2), and Foucault’s machines are built with a particular purpose in mind: that of allowing the subject to transform her relations to the games of power in which she is constantly and inextricably implicated. This is the second sense (which ultimately produces the first) in which Foucault is a thinker first not of power but of the subject: the analytics of power is always motivated by the problematics of our existence as subjects within particular constellations of power. “Knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.” (Foucault, 1984, p.88)


Deleuze, G. (1988). Foucault. US: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2013) A Thousand Plateaus. UK: Bloomsbury.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge. U.K.: Harvester.

Foucault, M. (1982) “Afterword: The Subject and Power” in Dreyfus, H.L. and Rabinow, P. eds. Michel Foucault: Structuralism and Hermeneutics. US: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M. (1984). “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Rabinow, P. ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. (1991) Remarks On Marx. Trans. Goldstein, R.J. and Cascaito, J., US: Semiotext(e).

Foucault, M. (1998) The Will To Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1. UK: Penguin.

Foucault, M. (2009) Security, Territory, Population. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Habermas, J. (1986) “Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present” in Hoy, D. ed. Foucault: A critical reader Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Heller, K.J. (1996) “Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault”. SubStance, Vol. 25, No. 1, Issue 79, pp. 78-110.