Truth and Power

Foucault outlines his ideas on truth, power, ideology and the possibilities of political action quite clearly in an interview he took part in in 1977, reproduced a chapter 6, Truth and Power, in the collection of interviews and lectures Michael Foucault; Power/Knowledge edited by Colin Gordan, Harvester 1980.

In the last post where I outlined a few provisional thoughts on ideology I noted Foucault’s critique of ideology, that it implies there are ideas, beliefs, discourses, that are in some way non-ideological. If ideology is defined as distortion or mystification, then this implies that it is possible to have undistorted or un-mystified forms of knowledge – truth. This is Foucault’s objection. Eagleton (Ideology: an introduction Verso 1991 page xii) denies this is fatal for the concept of ideology by pointing out that we can brand Pol Pot a Stalinist bigot without having to appeal to some metaphysical certitude about what not being a Stalinist bigot would involve. I’m not sure this entirely refutes Foucault’s position on ideology and in any case he uses the term in his writing occasionally without it seems any qualification or provisos. It would be interesting to examine these examples of the concept in use by Foucault and see if they accord with any of the 16 definitions listed on pages 1 and 2 by Eagleton. Perhaps another post. In the meantime it is useful to identify the main points Foucault makes in the ‘Truth and Power’ interview and any interesting implications and consequences.

Early in the interview Foucault is asked about the relationship between structuralism and the events of history. Structuralist analysis downgrades the actual messiness of historical events or,  in perhaps in the more familiar language of structure and agency, leaves out agency. For instance, one criticism of Althuser is that his theory reduces individual actors to simply ‘bearers of structure’, programmed cultural dopes. Foucault asserts he is an anti-structuralist in this sense but warns against prioritising historical events and ignoring structure.  History, as a chronology of events, has no meaning of itself but is intelligible and susceptible to analysis ‘down to the smallest detail’. But the intelligibility must be sought in the struggles, strategies and tactics evidenced in historical events. Against certain forms of structuralism that look for coherence in systems of meaning, the structure of communication or even the logic of contradictions, he claims these cannot account for conflict.

Here I believe one’s point of reference should not be to the great model of language (langue) and signs, but to that of war and battle. The history that bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power rather than relations of meaning. (p 114)

This introduces the centrality of power to his thinking. At the time he was wrestling with the notion of power the French left saw it as located within State apparatuses and the Right saw it in constitutional and legal terms and questions of sovereignty. For the Right the ‘other’ was Soviet socialist power denounced as totalitarianism. For the Left the power of Western capitalism was denounced as class domination. This is about as far as an analysis of power got at that time. The detailed mechanics of power, at the level of events and history was not addressed. 1968 changed all that for Foucault when the concrete nature of power became visible  as revealed in the daily struggles at grass roots level  engaged as they were in the fine meshes of the web of power. This moved the analysis of power out of the realms of traditional political analysis in to the realm of civil society and private life.

It is on page 118 that Foucault addresses the issue of ideology specifically where he identifies three drawbacks:

1) It always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth. I disagree with this but concede it depend on how you define ideology in the first place.

2) The concept of ideology necessarily refers to something of the order of a subject. I’m not entirely sure what this means in detail but if it means that individuals are implicated in ideology, as its target in some sense and as its effectively (the effects it produces) then I see no problem.

3) Finally he claims that ideology always relates to some sort of more fundamental determinant such as the economy. Here he seems to be invoking what I now consider to be an outdated old Marxist base-superstructure model.

He does not see these three problems with the concept reason to abandon it but says that it should not be used without circumspection and, as mentioned earlier, he continued to use the concept himself. He seemed to have had a certain traditional Marxist concept of ideology in mind, a conception that derives from a range of other Marxist assumptions he takes issue with. But there are more developed conceptualisations of ideology that avoid these but, in preserving the centrality of the nature and operations of power, would not be incompatible with Foucault’s analysis of power.

One Response to Truth and Power

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