Tag Archives: nietzsche

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.


The genie will not go back into the bottle. The recent Cambrian explosion of critiques of the Left – deploying the concepts of intersectionality and privilege – is not a reversible process. The old and comforting unities that have been disaggregated by these critiques cannot be reassembled – or at least not in the same way. Whether one is happy about this or not, intersectionality is now an active element of the Left, and the pre-intersectional Left cannot be recovered, even if one wished to.


Those who insist upon rejecting intersectionality in toto – whether due to nostalgia for previous compositions of the Left from previous phases of struggle, or to utopian visions of what the Left could be – have retreated into idealism. They construct transcendental standards of what the Left must become (once again) against which the Left is compared and inevitably found wanting. Such an approach cannot succeed. The immanent self-development of the Left can only be a process of self-transformation reckoning with and utilising the material of the actually-existing Left.


Intersectionality is not a ruling class conspiracy to destroy the Left. It is a critique of the Left from within the Left. Or, as Foucault would perhaps put it, an “insurrection of subjugated knowledges” within the Left. (Society Must Be Defended) It is the collective discursive assemblage deployed by minorised subjects within the Left to combat their marginalisation – a cutting tool to break through the ossified exclusions of Left theory and practice. Those who respond by waging a rhetorical war of annihilation against intersectionality and privilege have, as Mao might say, clearly gone wrong.


There are no purely creative or productive transformations. Creation always entails a measure of destruction. The Left must continuously be destroyed in order to be produced anew. “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” (Mikhail Bakunin, The Reaction in Germany)

This does not, however, mean that all destruction is also creation. There exist negations that are not dialectical. An atomic bomb does not produce a resurrection after it destroys.


If intersectionality is to be a force of revitalisation of the Left, how could it proceed but through negation? If the collective assemblages of the Left are ineffectual, stultifying, exclusionary, they must be broken apart – and parts thrown away, perhaps – before they can be assembled differently. The expectation that the intersectional transformation of the Left proceed only through pure positivity is in effect the demand that it not proceed at all.


If one is working on an old house, one is likely to uncover elements of toxicity and decay – asbestos, mould, rats, damp, cracked walls, rotting beams, even shaky foundations. While it might seem as though the problems uncovered have appeared as a result of the work undertaken, the truth is they were there already. The Left is an old house.

Intersectionality as a process has uncovered relations within the Left that are toxic. These are often unpleasant to deal with. But putting the carpet back down does not stop the floorboards rotting.


Fixing the Left is not an end-in-itself. It is not enough to get all of our internal relations in perfect balance. We are building a war machine, not an ornament.


The Left has always been angry. The Left has always been animated by the anger of the oppressed and exploited, as well as our hopes, desires, loves and aspirations. A Left that is not angry has succumbed to centrist capitulation, bureaucratic drudgery or hippy escapism.

The Left has never been unified. There has always been conflict and disagreement, sometimes bitter, because our divisions matter. A Left that has done away with all internal conflict is a Left that has given up all serious ambitions of transforming society and retreated into pantomime.

Why then has the presence of anger and conflict within the Left suddenly become intolerable?


Anger is political. It is gendered and racialised. The question of when, how and by whom anger is to be expressed is a matter of political contestation. One might reasonably be troubled at the intensity of anger within a discourse, but any remedy to the problem must not involve resubmerging the anger of the oppressed beneath a cold ocean of silence.


Anger is more than a mere feeling: it is an energy, a potential. It is a creative moment of an individual. It is not enough for that anger to find expression and recognition – that is a circuit of containment – it must be allowed to flow – to produce, transform and overthrow according to its own immanent truth – and not merely diffuse. It is a matter for the individual to develop such an ethical relationship to their anger, and not for any external apparatus of policing or mediation.


“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” (Assata Shakur)

Moralism is not the same as ethics. The former is based in what Nietzsche calls ressentiment, a resentment of the powerful that accepts the inevitability of one’s own powerlessness, and aims only at constraining the actions of the powerful, while valorising the condition of powerlessness. Moralism operates by setting up transcendental standards of good and evil which by the force of their ethical rightness are expected to determine the behaviour of individuals. In this sense it is an ineffectual idealist approach to ethics that can challenge power only in the abstract, rather than transforming the material conditions that enable that power.

For those struggling to make justice a material reality, moralism is a condition to be escaped or warded off. This does not, however, entail an abandonment of ethics, or a rejection of micropolitics. Any social movement that aims at being transformative must produce and practice a counterethics that aims at displacing and abolishing the dominant ethics by sweeping away the material mechanisms of the dominant ethics on all levels (individual, intersubjective, and social). Rejecting moralism in no way implies that we must compromise on our ethics, but rather that we develop a materialist and transformative approach to ethics – a counterethics conceived of as a component of a revolutionary machine.