Index And Introduction To The Subject And Power By Michel Foucault

Index to posts in this series
Power And Rationality
Resistance To Power
Techniques Of Power


In this series I will discuss The Subject And Power by Michel Foucault, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 4. (1982), pp. 777-795. The motivation is my general sense that The Dawn Of Everything has a pollyannaish take on decision-making in the societies they describe. They think our ancestors were made decisions communally, as if by a town meeting in Old New England. I think that’s wrong in a fundamental way.

I think it’s true, as David Graeber and David Wengrow say in a section heading, that as soon as we were humans we started doing human things. P. 83. One of the things humans do is try to influence the actions of others. Foucault calls that an exercise of power. In this sense, power is central to all human social activity.

Graeber and Wengrow are trying to understand how we got stuck in this current nearly universal set of social relationships. I won’t try to define that set, but one of the central characteristics is that the preferences of a very small number of people are enforced on the rest of us. Normal people know that we have critical problems, and that we generally know how to solve them. That tiny number of people don’t want us to carry out the solutions because it will reduce their wealth, and their control over their wealth. Their wealth translates into power in our stuck social structure, and problems aren’t being solved.

I don’t think we can find the answer in The Dawn Of Everything. That’s not to devalue the book. I think it performs a valuable service by painting a different picture of the development of human societies, and thus enables us to imagine a different future. Surely that’s reason enough to study the book.

Foucault gives us tools to examine the power relations that underlie our social development right up to today. Maybe that will help us figure out how to implement a better future.

Foucault’s Methodology

At the beginning of the essay, Foucault explains his project.

My objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects.

He’s not talking about a history in the high school sense of a sequence of events and ideas, dated, arranged, and conveying an implicit sense of linear progress. He isn’t talking about the history of the Civil War as a series of battles, or speeches of leaders.

Foucault’s history project begins with his idea of the archaeology of ideas, and moves to a genealogy of ideas. My source for this is an essay by Gary Guttig and Johanna Oksala, “Michel Foucault”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Conceptual frameworks aren’t facts, like the dates of the Civil War. The notion of ourselves as subjects is a construct, a framework, a formulation of a perspective and much more. The words we use when we think are themselves imprecise. Consider connotation. As an example, defenders might use a word like scofflaw to describe Donald Trump’s misappropriation of government documents. I might use the word thief, possibly with adjectives. The connotation of the former is trivial offense. The connotation of the latter is condemning. Word choices frame our discourse on every subject, and to a large extent govern the range of our thinking.

Here’s another example. When I was a kid, we looked at the night sky and saw a lot of stars. That gives one idea of the size of the universe. Suddenly ti turned out that practically all those stars are galaxies, and that there are billions more not visible to the naked eye. That gives me a completely different understanding of the scale of the universe.

Here’s how Guttig and Oksala put it:

The key idea of the archaeological method is that systems of thought and knowledge (epistemes or discursive formations, in Foucault’s terminology) are governed by rules, beyond those of grammar and logic, that operate beneath the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought in a given domain and period.

I think this is close to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept, habitus, which I discuss in detail here. This describes the cultural knowledge and expectations that guide our everyday interactions, it is the set of preconceptions we use to get along in the world. It is a form of knowledge of the world. We rarely question this knowledge because it almost always works. We use it because it makes our world predictable. In the usual course we’d be hard-pressed to state any part of it clearly.

Foucault thinks that because so much of our thinking lies below our conscious control, we can study these frameworks without considering any particular person. Our conceptual frameworks are universals, generally shared across our society. Foucault doesn’t take the perspective of any particular person. Instead, he looks at many different sources of information, not least of which is relevant social structures. As an example, Foucault wrote a book titled History of Madness. He discusses theories of madness and the languange people used to talk about it. He also examines the ways people dealt with people considered crazy, the institutions people set up to deal with them, and the treatments. This history reveals the changes in society’s perception of madness versus sanity over several centuries.

But histories don’t explain why conceptual frameworks change. For that Foucault turned to genealogies. These are efforts to explain how change happens in the discursive formations societies use to deal with madness, sexuality, and more. His work demonstrates that there is no orderly progress toward some progressive goal, just typical human evolution, some good, some bad, some impossible to evaluate.


1. This essay is more difficult than I thought on first reading. I hope this background provides some context for the ideas we’ll be examining. Specifically, we’ll be looking at relations of power. Foucault writes about changes over the past two or three centuries, but I assume that power relations played the same roles throughout human history. I might be wrong, but it seems plausible.

2. Graeber and Wengrow show that human societies did not evolve out of an organized plan to proceed to a brilliant future. They think social evolution is the result of the actions of a lot people trying to cope, dominate, control, adapt, invent, share, take, and all the other things people do. This leads them to believe that we can change things to suit our desires and make life better for all of us. But how can you think that without considering the role of power relations?

38 replies
  1. Skillethead says:

    If you were looking at the night sky with just your naked eyes, the stars you saw were stars. Pretty sure the Magellanic Clouds and Andromeda are the only galaxies (other than the Milky Way) that are visible with the naked eye. With binocs or a small telescope, you can see a few more, but most of what we can see without real visual help are stars.

    But there are more galaxies in the Universe than stars in the Milky Way, which is pretty cool.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Well, that’s no fun. I really liked my image, and I’m sorry to lose it. Somehow, “I looked up at the night sky and saw a bunch of blackness, and never knew it was actually full of galaxies far far away” doesn’t have the same ring.

      • Marshall says:

        “When we think of history, we see an array of pointlike events, individual or collective. But in Foucault’s view, the background or the space between is filled with frameworks of power relations (built from uncountable past events which) whose gravity control the evolution of the universe but which are hidden from naive conscious view. This gives me a completely different view of the complexity of human societies.”

        Out of the frying pan into the fire! Never give up a good evocative metaphor!

  2. Ramona says:

    Hi Ed,

    Finally, we are on terrain I know something about. Foucault taught for short periods of time in my doctoral program before I was there. Our understanding and methodology was built on a set of assumptions that included his work. Foucault is always difficult, and I do not pretend to have more than a cursory understanding as I did not use his theory extensively. I once told some grad students who were questioning why they needed to read Foucault that he would teach them how they participate in their own oppression. I don’t believe however, that power relations were always the same as they have been now, especially in the past 500 years. I’ve wanted to participate in your discussions of “The History of Everything” but my life is chaos right now and just keeping up with the latest global and national developments and checking online sources seems to take up all my time. I will catch up to that series before you finish it if at all possible.

    It may be a particularly modern circumstance that people participate in their own oppression (not counting gender oppression which has been going on throughout written history of course). Personally, I would be hesitant to apply Foucault to non-Western cultures and/or non-modern periods.

    He was/is part of a project which interrogates discourse. How different languages/cultural systems construct their respective discourses is open to debate. I buy into the notion that discourses work very differently in different times and places. Nevertheless, all human language is based on oppositional definitions (for lack of a shorthand way of putting this right here). So human meaning making is for sure universal but the discourses built on top are, I believe, particular to time and place.

    In Foucault, power is dispersed in structures of knowledge and those structures are pervasive and inhere inside the dominated also.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I hope you’ll find time to comment as I fight my way through this essay. I’ve read several works by and about Foucault, but strictly as an amateur reader.

      I use this blog to organize and flesh out my own thinking and expose it to people who know more than I do in hopes of better understanding. So, thanks again.

      I put a more substantive comment below.

        • Ginevra diBenci says:

          Deman might have benefited from interrogating his own discourse a little more fully. I won’t jump on the “Nazi” bandwagon of a few years ago, but the clarity of which you speak does seem to have come with a price. Deman’s facility at US academic politics, however, may say more about that establishment.

      • Ramona says:

        Happy to help and this will give me a chance to review and think about Foucault, something I always appreciate as I have barely scratched the surface.

        I believe Foucault will be considered critical to understanding modern consciousness.

        I sincerely hope I see these posts!!

  3. tvor_22 says:

    Don’t they talk a little about power toward the end of the book? I think they have something to say about how it may have mutated from systems of care. I think, too, part of their egalitarian hunter gatherer debunking had to do with pointing out familial power systems. I read it as soon as it was published and only once, and there’s so much to take in it was a bit of an overload.

    Also, Graeber has some pretty big criticisms of both Foucault and to a lesser degree Bourdieu especially WRT power, much of which you can find in his books, various public published writings and online lectures. Might be worth looking into some of that (I think he might have even been a student of Bourdieu’s–at least he read his MA and had some nice things to say).

    • Christopher Rocco says:

      I have to agree with Ramona here. Foucault’s early work, the examples of The History of Madness and especially the Archaeology of Knowledge, concern the construction of epistemes, while the later genealogies, of which “The Subject and Power” is an example, come to terms with how the modern exercise of power creates or fabricates the modern subject. His work here really does only apply to the modern period, post French Revolution, more or less. His point is that power is productive, it’s decentralized and dispersed, it’s capillary, so to speak, implicated in knowledge (power/knowledge regime), and functions secretly, in low level institutions, like prisons, schools, barracks, factories, asylums, etc. On this telling, what power produces is docile bodies, delinquents, schoolboys, soldiers, factory workers, etc. It has created the modern soul. This is all in contrast to the premodern exercise of power (Hobbes), which was repressive. So I don’t think Foucault has a whole lot to say to or about the subjects of The Dawn of Everything. Those subjectivities, and their power relations, are completely different in kind.

  4. Tech Support says:

    A lot of these essays have been fantastic reading and I appreciate them greatly. However I disagree with:

    “Normal people know that we have critical problems, and that we generally know how to solve them.”

    Personally that has not been my experience. Most people I’ve interacted with often struggle to correctly identify problems or prioritize the handling of problems they do recognize, let alone solve them via optimal methods or even at all. What I’ve seen instead is that people have an enormous capacity to adapt to problems, endure through them, and generally survive in spite of them.

    On some level, I think that this continuous struggle to get past our own irrationality and imperfect knowledge has real bearing on the resulting economic and political systems we end up with.

    I’m interested to see where Focault might go in that context.

  5. pabloakapablo says:

    Thank you Ed for all you do here. Did read “Dawn..” earlier in the year and, given my slow and older brain, it has become somewhat distant already in memory- therefore I plan to re-read it shortly. That said, my sense was that power, the issue of power was woven intimately into the narratives that were being played out early in book- perhaps not explicitly but there nonetheless. May say more about the power of projection on my part– In any case look forward to where this discussion moves.

  6. David Lowe says:

    It is frightening that an intelligent and thoughtful person can go through our educational system and understand the physical world so poorly as to think that the visible stars in the sky are galaxies.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Pedantry and cynicism, with a poor grasp of the average American educational experience.

        Only a handful of objects visible to the naked eye in the night sky are galaxies; most are stars in our own galaxy and a few planets. If your distant vision is clear, a galaxy will appear as a blurred object rather than a point of light. Mr. Lowe’s vision must be particularly sharp, pity about his conversational skills.

  7. Robert Consoli says:

    Hi Ed,
    You say: ” … I assume that power relations played the same roles throughout human history. I might be wrong, but it seems plausible.”

    The Fallacy of the Universal Man is always plausible. (Fischer, Historian’s Fallacies)


    • pseudo42 says:

      True, we don’t know the vast majority of human history. But we do know that power relations existed in prehistoric times. Consider the article https://onlinelibrary.wiley. com/doi/full/10.1002/evan.21446 especially the paragraph beginning “The skeletal evidence is particularly striking…”; or try a search on the terms paleolithic violence or neolithic massacre or their permutations. Our closest evolutionary neighbors, chimpanzees, form hierarchical communities. From all appearances, Rousseau was simply wrong, though we seem to have a postmodern resurgence of the myth of a paleo paradise. And it seems to me Graeber and Wengrow whitewash pre-agricultural violence; I have the same impression of James Scott. I propose competition for resources plus something akin to pride or vainglory fueled stone-age mayhem.

      Chomsky seems to accept the standard Marxist framework of universal material needs, and he defends the idea that there are other common characteristics of homo sapiens, one proof being our near-universal ability to acquire language, apparently rooted in biological reality. Whereas Foucault see “biology” as an area of discourse that’s a product of post-enlightenment power struggles. See https://chomsky. info/1971xxxx/ This was a famous debate between Chomsky and Foucault about the nature of power. I suppose other, less tangible needs include e.g. parenting (and I agree with Gimbutas and other archaeologists that religion also contextualized life in the stone age).

      Also in that debate, Foucault rejects the notion of human nature and he does not believe in justice, including social justice: “…you can’t prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realisation of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilisation, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system” . If social justice is your ideal, Chomsky would urge you on and the late Foucault would have encouraged you to reconsider.

      • timbo says:

        Interestingly (or not), and mildly tangentially (too), there’s a cult in Sedona where the lower echelon cult members believe that pre-history was a paradise of philosopher-kings, of which the leaders of that cult are but obvious gleaming paradigms. This cult was started by UCB philosophy professors on the take.

  8. Robert Consoli says:

    And take a warning from Rousseau:
    “Philosophers who have investigated the foundations of society have all found it necessary to go back to the state of nature, only none of them has succeeded in getting there; all of them talking ceaselessly about ‘need’, ‘greed’, ‘oppression’, ‘desire’ and ‘pride’, have transported into the state of nature concepts formed in society; they speak of savage man, but they depict civilized man.”
    Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality Among Men (Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes.)

  9. Ed Walker says:

    @Ramona and others on the aims of Foucault’s thinking about power. I realize he focuses on the post-Enlightenment era for his examples. But power in the broad sense is always with us. Graeber and Wengrow refer to the idea that our ancestors “ran headlong into their chains” or “rushing blindly for their chains”.

    Power relations, like all human constructs, don’t just suddenly come into existence. They evolve, changing to meet needs of the time.

    One example is what the authors call sacred knowledge. They clearly know that claiming to have sacred knowledge enables the claimer to exert power over their neighbors. As an example look at the section on p. 405 discussing the bureaucratic growth that attended on the sacred knowledge in the fourth millennium BCE that the dead kings of Egypt required wheat beer. How did the authors not discuss the fact that this knowledge gave the priests and bureaucrats power, and imposing this knowledge on the commoners was an exercise of power relations? Why don’t they use this to discuss power relations as an explanation of how we got stuck in our current social arrangement?

    It’s certainly true that the levers of power are more developed today. But why wouldn’t we look at them to speculate about how they might have worked in earlier forms, just as they use ethnographic studies of the peoples of the New World to think about older cultures?

    I think this

    • Alexi says:

      Apologies in advance if this comment seems to come out of left field so to speak..

      There are many types of power.

      There is blunt force power (the sword etc)

      There is superstitious power wielded by those who posses “secret knowledge” akin to the Church which claims to have a say in whether or not one goes to heaven or hell for eternity.

      There is the power of the narrative which usually relies on values (self determination vs oppression for example) . A self serving story line whether true or false that sways the public via emotion to belief and then to action.

      There is the power of influence (media these days) to spread a narrative.

      There is the hidden power behind the spreading and the framing of any narrative in money. It’s why the media never brings up Citizens United. It makes them billions every election cycle.

      And finally there is the power of the individual to be true to themselves. This relies on the belief that we have free will. Studies seems to prove that we do not have free will in the sense that we believe we do. BUT, we also see that change is a human constant and always a possibility because humans are influenced by their environment and what may have been a normal reaction yesterday to something outrageous may be a ho-hum response today.

      That lack of free will and constant ability to change our responses based upon environmental influences seems to address Graeber and Wengrow’s statement that all this is an unplanned evolutionary construct.

      But once you look at it as opposed to simply living reflexively, choices may become available to purposefully direct that evolutionary journey.

      PS If this seems so much sophomoric gobbledygook I won’t be offended. It’s just my 2 cents, and thank you for the article.

    • Ginevra diBenci says:

      Ed, power itself (as differentiated from the word “power”) is not humans’ to construct. It is a given that all fauna accommodate, with vertebrates doing so more overtly, as evolutionary forces seem to reward by rendering species more competitive. Until us.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      An appeal to expertise power in order to win an argument without having one, combined with an academic’s put down about the lowly status of the amateur. Garden variety faculty lounge repartee.

      Ironic, then, that English and other elites for so long exalted the unique power and rights of the amateur, in order to bolster the status of the nobility, and landed and wealth elites – the dilettantes – against challenges to the social order brought by intellectually and athletically gifted plebeians and other outsides. The experiences of Jim Thorpe and the not-so-plebeian Harold Abrahams come to mind.

  10. Tetman Callis says:

    Assuming for sake of argument that Foucault’s position that power flows in contemporary society along webs of discourse, with those who have access to recognized terms and arguments within whatever “sub-realm” (not a Foucaultian term, but one I am coining for the sake of this long and convoluted question) being those who are most effectively able to wield power over others within the constraints of whatever given sub-realm is material to the circumstance at hand (e.g., law, medicine, baseball, etc.), which power is the power of specialized knowledge, and can be used to garner tangible benefits (e.g., a higher paying source of remuneration) and less materially evident yet nonetheless prized benefits (e.g., a title, or a series of letters to place after one’s name), then, in the more recent past and in a more particularized geographical area, those being the United States of America during the past seven or so years, could that phenomenon that ended up with tens of millions of people voting for and continuing to support one or more leaders who continue to be outside of and opposed to certain sub-realms wherein power has for many generations been marshaled and deployed in certain recognizable and respectable ways, be understood as a revolt by people who have insufficient power, or who view themselves as having insufficient power, within such sub-realms as law, finance, or medicine, due in no small part to their not being able to effectively communicate, and thereby exercise a certain social power, along various webs of discourse?

    • Alexi says:

      One could posit that the votes for those “outside” the normal systems by the Left is to attain power that they have not had; ie. civil rights, gay rights, police reform etc… and that a vote from the Right is a response to feelings that the power they have wielded for so long is slipping away.

    • christopher rocco says:

      I think Foucault’s point, since Discipline and Punish, is that we have been looking in the wrong places to see how power works. First, it is decentralized and dispersed, not centralized and contained; second, it circulates through low level institutions like prisons, schools, asylums, etc., and is not held or possessed. Both guard and prisoner are implicated in the exercise of power. Third, it is anonymous and self regulating: we discipline ourselves. And fourth, power is not repressive, it doesn’t say no, rather it is productive and what it produces is the modern self, our very own subjectivity, and it does so without us, the subjects, knowing that it is working behind our backs, so to speak, to create who we are. So the very citizens, who would be subjects of a democracy, are always already created in advance. If we push this reasoning farther, as Bill Connolly has in his debates with Charles Taylor and Jurgen Habermas, the very hallmarks of democracy, like rational deliberation (Habermas) and the democratic subject itself, are normalizing and normalized productions of power. Rational deliberation is itself an exercise of power that shapes and creates the democratic citizen. So even when we think we are using power to determine our future (voting), we have already been determined and normalized into people who vote and follow the rules. One can take this in a lot of directions, from resistant activity that performs citizenship, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc in varied and disruptive ways to the norm breaking and rule shattering to the point of lawlessness seen in the previous administration that continues today, to the productive power and “normalizing’ that takes place via social media platforms. I think Foucault’s analysis is quite fertile and useful for today’s landscape, not sure how it might apply to Graeber’s and Wengrow’s account, but juxtaposing the two opens up a lot of territory for discussion.

  11. skua says:

    1. Graeber and Wengrow’s major contribution may be to free our thinking from the false knowledge that the modern condition is the inevitable outcome of farming rather than that being an unexamined, politically motivated fantasy that justifies the current setup.
    Their book has been criticized for in some places presenting fine if their goal is to destroy the sense of certainty that had existed and replace that with a narrative emphasizing possibility and diversity.
    Stephen O’Brien: Assessing the Dawn: Critical Responses to Graeber and Wengrow’s ‘The Dawn of Everything’

    2. An example of how, on Peig’s Great Blasket Island, a king was both chosen and functioned very differently:
    (from 7:41 to 11:10)

    • skua says:

      How about,
      ” book has been criticized for in some places presenting only the scholarly interpretation that supports their project while not mentioning other scholarly interpretations of the same evidence that does not. I think this is fine if their goal is to destroy the sense of certainty that had existed and replace that with a narrative emphasizing possibility and diversity.”?

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