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Power to resist, or resistance to power?

Foucault was a reluctant, yet subliminal dialectician; his concepts cannot be read in isolation from each other or within strict and uni-directional action-reaction schemata.11 This is particularly true when it comes to the issue of ‘agency’, which poses a problem to Foucault in a very personal manner and permeates, as a central dilemma, the main narratives holding together the structure of The Order of Things: ‘What must I be’, Foucault asks here, ‘I who think and who am my thought, in order to be what I do not think, in order for my thought to be what I am not?’12 This dilemma, elicited by the ‘outside’ pressures on the making of our ‘self’, links up with several central questions that Foucault grappled with throughout his scholarly life: Is it possible to think in detachment from the outside world? Are we at liberty to constitute our ‘self’ in independence? Of course, the answers to these questions indicate the viability of resistance, for if disciplinary regimes such as Orientalism penetrate all the way down to an individual’s subjective constitution, how can we act against it and defy it?

Critics of Foucault would point to his oeuvre and argue that in his writings, as opposed to his projects as an activist, he focuses almost exclusively on the strategies that mould us into subjects of power. As Said argued: For Foucault power seems ‘irresistible and unstoppable’.13 Foucault did not only describe how disciplinary constellations affect our thinking, the argument goes, but he suggests that power is both physical and metaphysical; it acts on the body and the cognition of the subject. ‘Foucault seems sometimes on the verge of depriving us of a vocabulary in which to conceptualise the nature and meaning of those periodic refusals of control that, just as much as the imposition of control, mark the course of human history,’ one feminist author complains.14 ‘From Foucault’s perspective’, another critic notes, ‘the human sciences are a major force in the disastrous triumph of Enlightenment thinking, and the panoptical scientific observer is a salient expression of the subject-centred putatively universal reason which that thinking promotes.’15 It is true that Foucault spilled most of his ink on alerting society about the overbearingly intrusive, carefully networked impact of disciplinary techniques that are deployed in order to contain any meaningful expression of resistance. In terms of his empirical research and theoretical treatise, Foucault prioritised disciplinary power over resistance, to the detriment of a better theory of political agency. But to conclude from this, that Foucauldian ‘postmodernism’ has contributed to the denial of ‘both agency and causal explanations of sociocultural change’ is problematic.16 Foucault may have been more concerned with ‘what is’ than with ‘what could be’, but his theory of power and resistance does not suffocate the viability of radical dissidence. To say, as Said does, that Foucault is caught up in a paradox, that his ‘imagination of power was by his analysis of power to reveal its injustice and cruelty, but by his theorisation to let it go on more or less unchecked’,17 only reveals one part of the dialectic. Criticism like this does not appreciate the theoretical thrust that Foucault ascribes to modes of resistance.

A paper authored by Gilles Deleuze provides a useful start to unravelling that accusation further. In this paper, Deleuze argues that there is no real rupture between the later and early Foucault, that he continuously theorised the prospects of change, viz. the viability of resistance to power. This is particularly apparent, according to Deleuze, in the way Foucault conceptualises the relationship between the subject and the outside world, which creates its own dialectically constituted dimension in which the self can act. Within this dimension, which must be treated as a theoretical category, the subject resists disciplinary power, not entirely autarkic from the political economy of knowledge, but autonomous enough to enact radical change. Deleuze is alluding exactly to the dialectics (relationships or interdependencies) of self and other, subject and object, power and resistance to make this point: ‘If the outside is a relationship, the absolute of relationships,’ he notes, ‘then the inside is also a relationship, the relationship becoming subject.’18 This subject has access to a dialectically constituted ‘dimension’ in which a form of agency can be fostered. ‘If force receives a dual power from the outside, the power to affect (other forces) and to be affected (by other forces), how could there not ensue a relationship between force and itself?’ It is here, Deleuze suggests, that Foucault places the ‘element of “resistance.”’19 Deleuze concedes that the ‘subject is always constituted, the product of a subjectivication’. But he maintains at the same time that the subject ‘appears in a dimension that opposes all stratification or codification. ... [T]he relationship to the self does not let itself be aligned according to the concrete forms of power or be subsumed in an abstract diagrammatic function.’20 Rather, the contrary. The self escapes into another, presumably ‘third’ dimension in which agency is enacted. In the words of Deleuze: ‘It is as if the relationships of the outside folded to make a double [doublure] and allow a relationship to the self to arise that develops according to a new dimension.’21

Deleuze reverts to Foucault’s analysis of the historical formation of the ancient Greek concept of Enkrateia to enunciate this fundamental dynamic further. According to Foucault, Enkrateia is ‘a power exercised over oneself in the power one exercises over others’.22 Deleuze adds that Foucault’s understanding of Enkrateia presupposes the possibility of triumph over the subjugated self, for ‘how could one claim to govern others if one could not govern oneself?’23 From this perspective, Foucault must have accepted the viability of agency, the possibility to escape formalised forms of power that the ancient Greeks invented. ‘Foucault’s work was created by inventing a topology that actively puts the inside and outside in contact on the stratified formations of history,’ Deleuze explains further. ‘It is up to the strata to produce layers that show and tell something new; but it is also up to the relationship of the outside to call the powers in place into question, and it is up to the relationship with the self to inspire new modes of subjectivisation.’24 It is along this dialectical tabula rasa that the possibility ‘to show and tell something new’ can reveal itself. Fold a piece of paper and you will see. The crease is a surface effect of the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ and it holds together both. Multiply this piece of paper and the creases infinitesimally in order to simulate the complexity of human history and the power-resistance dialectics it has provoked, and you will get an impression of the structure that Foucault imagines. It is within that topological relationship between inside and outside, subject and object, self and other, resistance and power, in other words, where the contested space in which agency unfolds itself can be localised.

There is a second pathway along which we can traverse the power-resistance dialectic under focus here. It has been said that Foucault places resistance within power. That means that power and resistance are in a constant and ‘violent’ battle with each other. In that sense the power of Orientalism would always also provoke resistance. Consequently, a history of Orientalism must always also be interrupted by a history of counter-discourses to it. There is no suggestion in Foucault’s variant conceptualisation of this dialectical struggle that power and resistance are somehow static or oppositional forces that retain their properties when they intermingle. Neither is there a clearly demarcated inside and outside to this dialectic, where we could neatly locate either power or resistance. Rather, as I have tried to demonstrate via Deleuze, resistance is a surface effect of a dialectic between indigenous forces and exogenous impingement. ‘The relationship to self is homologous to the relationship with the outside and all the contents of the inside are in relation with the outside.’25 Applied to the power- resistance dialectic under focus here, this means that Foucault’s ‘genealogies of power’ are implicated in ‘genealogies of resistance’.26 Recent scholarship on this issue supports this view. It is quite literally ‘axiomatic that where power goes in Foucault, there is resistance as well.’27 If resistance goes along with power, and if [p]ower is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere’,28 as Foucault adamantly maintains, then it must follow - quite logically - that resistance is contemporaneous with power. In short: If power is promiscuous, if the power of Orientalism is acutely penetrative as Said suggests, resistance to it must be as well.

So the charge, articulated by Said and others including Anthony Giddens, Jurgen Habermas and Michael Walzer, that Foucault sides with the non-subjective aspects of power, rather than with individual intentionality, is problematic because it is based on the false premise that power and resistance are detachable or located in different ‘dimensions’.29 The agency that unfolds itself in the dialectic between power and resistance is not a simple replication of the dialectic itself, neither is it a safe place, a Hegelian synthesis. Rather, it is an effect of power acting on resistance, which has swerved or departed from its original purpose to constrain the individual, to arrive in another dimension which opens up possibilities of agency that do not merely react to the original incentive of power, but effectively expand the boundaries of what is intentionally achievable. Agency reveals itself as a surface effect of a fundamental action-action dynamic. Foucault is very clear about this. ‘When one defines the exercise of power as a mode of action upon the actions of others’, he emphasises,

when one characterises these actions as the government of men by other

men ... one includes an important element: freedom. Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are ‘free.’ By this we mean individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possibilities in which several kinds of conduct, several ways of reacting and modes of behaviour are available. ... Consequently there is not a face-to-face confrontation of power and freedom as mutually exclusive facts (freedom disappearing everywhere power is exercised), but a much more complicated interplay. In this game, freedom may well appear as the condition for the exercise of power (at the same time its precondition, since freedom must exist for power to be exerted, and also its permanent support, since without the possibility of recalcitrance power would be equivalent to a physical determination).30

For this action-action dynamic to make sense, freedom, including the viability to resist, must come first. Deleuze interprets this to mean that ‘a diagram of forces presents, alongside the singularities of power corresponding to its relationships, singularities of resistance, “points, nodes, foci” that in turn act on the strata in order to make change possible’. He even goes one step further and argues that in Foucault the ‘last word in the theory of power is that resistance comes first since it has a direct relationship with the outside. Thus a social field resists more than it strategizes and the thought of the outside is a thought of resistance (The Will to Knowledge).’31 Consequently, a fundamental matrix is formed: Resistance precedes power ^ resistance is a freedom that power acts upon ^ resistance is a form of power. In other words, resistance is not only viable; it is a form of agency which necessarily exists as a part of the condition of humanity, viz. freedom. It is in this sense that the possibility of power must imply the possibility of resistance. In the words of Foucault:

The power relationship and freedom’s refusal to submit cannot therefore be separated. The crucial problem of power is not that of voluntary servitude (how could we seek to be slaves?). At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom. Rather than speaking of an essential antagonism, it would be better to speak of an ‘agonism’ - of a relationship which is at the same time mutual incitement and struggle; less of a face-to-face confrontation that paralyzes both sides than a permanent provocation.32

In a well-argued article, Kevin Jon Heller attributes the widespread misinterpretation of Foucault’s understanding of power to the inability of many scholars to divorce themselves from mainstream notions of power as uni-directional or inherently repressive.33 This hierarchical effect of power seems to be what Said had in mind when he argues that Orientalism does not only create knowledge but ‘reality’ all the way down to the very constitution of the ‘Oriental’ himself. Heller points out that for Foucault power could be both repressive and productive, that it ‘is a facility not a thing’.34 His argument can be linked to Gayatri Spivak’s reading of Foucault’s understanding of power and the problems of translating it into English. Spivak rightly points out that pouvoir in French does not only

(or even primarily) refer to ‘repression’ and ‘submission’ but that in its various conjugations it also refers to a form of ‘“can-do ness’”,35 that it relates to verbs such as ‘to enable’ and ‘to make possible’. From this perspective, power is no longer equated with repression. Rather, power ‘traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network that runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression.’36

Foucault does not decisively answer the question whether or not such productive notions of power can be equated with resistance and what then the difference between resistance and power would be. But he does give us some clues about the battles at the root of the power-resistance dialectic. Given that Foucault believes that resistance precedes power, it must follow that power, at least in its ‘first’ appearance, is active, that it acts upon something pre-existing, viz. resistance, which is both necessary and sufficient for his theory of power to work. ‘ [R] esistance or the possibility of resistance’, it is argued in the recent secondary literature on this issue, ‘constitutes the corner stone of the very definition of the “power relation”, which is importantly not simply a relation of domination’. Rather, resistance ‘comes first quite literally, resistance is what power works on and through"?1 This does not mean that power is reactive (as much as it does not mean that resistance is reactive of course). It simply means that power and resistance are exactly coextensive. Again: Where there is power there must be resistance. Consequently, when Said used Foucault in order to express the discursive density of Orientalism, he should have dispersed his argument with the period before and after the colonial interlude and the modes of resistance during its heydays.

It should be noted in parenthesis that resistance is not to be thought of as a ‘state of nature’, or a form of primordial authenticity. Rather, resistance is not realised without power acting upon it. Power ‘actualises’ resistance; ‘its character as resistance derives from its opposition to some power relation’. This should not be considered a mere semantic necessity. Rather, ‘it is a fact about the ontological constitution of resistance. Without power intervening upon me, I am simply doing, not resisting.’38 Again, this means that the power of Orientalism must provoke a powerful resistance discourse which needs to be captured analytically exactly because of the all-encompassing effects Said ascribes to the Orientalist regime. It is this inevitability of the continuous provocation of resistance that explains the rather nonchalant attitude that Foucault seemed to have towards power, as if he wanted us to ignore it altogether, forcing us to focus on the viability of resistance instead (and what a liberating utopia would that be!).39 Don’t worry about power, he seemed to say. The more powerful a particular discourse, the more intricate resistance to it: Where there is power, there must be resistance, power is not unidirectional, it cannot be monopolised, it is not a property, Orientalism can’t be all encompassing, the Orient continuously resisted to be represented. Where there is reification of any powerful discourse, then, the power to narrate, to create reality, to construct meaning, to engineer Orientalism as a disciplinary regime, there must be - quite automatically - ‘de-reification’, the power to counter-act, to create a dissident culture.

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