Friday, May 1, 2009

discourse, opposition and the potential for change

Within Part Four of The History of Sexuality, titled “The Deployment of Sexuality,” Foucault posits what I found to be both exceptionally interesting and useful notions of power and discourse in its explanation of how one might understand how resistance operates within this relationship. Firstly, Foucault highlights various qualities of power, drawing attention to its presence everywhere, in every situation, as well as its quality of mobility, stating “power is not something that is acquired, seized or shared, something that one holds onto or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations. (94)” Further, he states that “power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective…there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives. (95)” I found this argument to be quite interesting in that Foucault clearly isolates power as a series of operations from any physical thinking body or institution as he continues, “But this does not mean that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject. (95)” Instead of viewing power through the lens of a top-down dynamic, Foucault insists that is operates from the bottom-up through various tactics which form systems through connections and reinforcement. Still, in every circumstance “where there is power, there is resistance. (95)” It is a crucial point, however, to mention that this resistance never operates externally to power. If power is not to be viewed as operating from the top-down, but rather as a system defined by simultaneous but fluid pushes and pulls of opposition, resistance which is part of the very fabric of power, it would seem as though the very formal qualities of power and power relationships, as outlined by Foucault, may be conducive rather than militantly opposing to transformation. Indeed, the very character and existence of power relationships “depends on a multiplicity of points of resistance…present everywhere in the power network. (95)”
From this understanding of power and power relations, Foucault moved into discussing the manner in which discourse operates within this network through power-knowledge, stating that “relations of power-knowledge are not static forms of distribution, they are ‘matrices of transformations’. (99)” Discourse can be understood within networks not as a single object, but as ‘polyvalent,’ possessing a “multiplicity…that can come into play in various strategies. (100)” As such, Foucault writes:

Discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it. (101)

It is from this basis that Foucault introduces what he calls a “‘reverse’ discourse,” what might be understood as a route towards potential transformation made possible by the exposing qualities of discourse he has outlined. In an example that has certainly become the focus of much scholarship within queer theory and gender studies, Foucault presents the self-produced and propagated discourse on homosexuality as a form of “‘reverse’ discourse” in which attempts at obtaining acknowledgement of social legitimacy and biological ‘naturalness,’ “homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf…often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified. (101)” While Foucault certainly presents such discourse as an example of the manner in which certain practices may enable transformation by not only drawing attention to but operating off of/through the very instable effects of domination within power relationships, it is perhaps still necessary to question the ultimate potential for transformation that, in operating through those very structures and tactics of power, cannot ever escape them and operate externally to them and is ultimately shaped and colored according to the terms and episteme of the dominant. A prime example of this may also be taken from conversations within queer studies which question the practices of gay and lesbian individuals asking to be understood as having “been born that way,” a claim that, although may provide those individuals with a level of legitimacy and respect within society, also reinforced notions of sexuality as a question of either/or and as located purely within the scientific lens of body (suggesting ones sexuality to be determined by an external “greater” cause, rather than the product of social practices and belief systems.) In this reinforcement, such discourse also prevents the potential for more radical transformation that may challenge larger structural notions of sex, gender and identity.


Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. 2 vols. New York: Viintage, 1990.

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