John Owen Havard | “Freeing oneself from power”

By John Owen Havard

In the fourth lecture of On the Government of the Living (GL), Foucault makes some remarkable—not to mention playful—statements about his own critical practice, perhaps some of the most revealing found in his entire oeuvre. I will reserve discussion of his striking repudiation of the “theorist” role for the conclusion of this post. My main focus will be how Foucault, by enmeshing his account of the “truth” of the subject (or the self) within diverse relations of power, brings us to a further, urgent question: how far can the subject challenge or otherwise escape the operations of power, in ways that have precisely to do with claiming—or reclaiming—the “truth” that they themselves manifest? These are concerns central to Foucault’s very final lecture course, The Courage of Truth. Indeed, this earlier discussion, I will propose, anticipates Foucault’s later attempts to grapple with truth, the self, and power through his extended discussion of parrhēsia in the final lectures. GL makes what I will suggest are equally if not perhaps even more fascinatingly speculative observations, which further illuminate that necessarily provisional final discussion. The remarks, in this fourth lecture, eschewing the “theorist” role and his speculating about escaping power are particularly remarkable, not least, I will suggest, for standing so completely at odds with reductive accounts of Foucault, whether as static theorist of “power” or quietistic cultivator of the “self.”

The Subject of Power, the Power of the Subject

What does the “subject,” in manifesting and claiming their “truth,” have to do with “power”? An account of the later lectures through the reductive lens of Foucault’s supposed “ethical turn” will have little to contribute to this question. As Bernard Harcourt notes, GL presents an “opening” onto the concern with the truth of the self in the final lectures, while also returning us to earlier questions of discipline, power, and governance. By pulling back to these earlier lectures, which initiate questions taken up in On the Government of the Self and Others and The Courage of Truth we can see clearly that Foucault continued to lodge his discussions of the subject amidst diverse relations of power. There is, Foucault notes, a “perfectly respectable way of posing the philosophical-political question” that brings the “subject” and their “truth” into the realm of governance:

when the subject voluntarily submits to the bond of the truth, in a relationship of knowledge (connaisance) … when, after providing himself with its foundations, instruments, and justification, the subject claims to deliver a discourse of truth, what can he say about, or for, or against the power to which he is involuntarily subject? In other words, what can the voluntary bond with the truth say about the involuntary bond that ties us and subjects us to power? (GL, pp. 76–7, emphasis added).

In their “bond with the truth,” the subject confronts power in its voluntary guises: as a willing pupil, a zealous convert. But what about “power” in its involuntary guises (everything from the disciplinary gaze to diffuse governmental techniques)? Foucault gets at this question by framing his “perfectly respectable” approach in another way:

what does the systematic, voluntary, theoretical and practical questioning of power have to say about the subject of knowledge and about the bond with the truth by which, involuntarily, this subject is held? In other words, it is no longer a matter of saying: given the bond tying me voluntarily to the truth, what can I say about power? But, given my desire, decision, and effort to break the bond that binds me to power, what then is the situation with regard to the subject of knowledge and the truth? (GL, p. 77 emphasis added).

We are not talking here, Foucault goes on to note, about a situation in which one could simply challenge prevailing representations by calling attention to their error, falsity, irrationality, or scientific or ideological illegitimacy. Rather, as Foucault concludes, he is describing “the movement of freeing oneself from power that should serve as revealer in the transformations of the subject and the relation the subject maintains with the truth” (GL, p. 77).

The seasoned reader of Foucault may well pause to confirm she has read correctly at this point. Freeing oneself from power? While the phrasing of this sentence remains awkward, its implications are as clear as day. Foucault flatly states that, in their relationship with the truth, subjects might “free [themselves] from power,” perhaps even the diverse techniques of power by which they were (“involuntarily”) constituted in the first place. We know that Foucault has expanded vistas in view from his subsequent statements about power (in one of several remarkable passages, to which I will return below). Worth flagging here is Foucault’s playful description of the approach he is proposing as “a sort of anarcheology” in which no existing relations of power can be taken for granted. Lest we take these remarks and their accompanying neologism as a momentary jeu d’esprit, we ought to note that Foucault goes on to cite the very pressing realities underpinning his earliest work on institutions. In his history of madness, Foucault observes, this “anarcheological type of study” consisted “in taking the practice of confinement in its historical singularity, that is to say, in its contingency, in the sense of its fragility, its essential non-necessity” (which is not to deny—“quite the opposite!”—the “brute fact” of confinement). (GL, p 79). Far from a retreat from the concerns of his earlier studies, these remarkable pages from GL remind us that an insistently political strain endured through Foucault’s so-called ethical turn.

Fearless Speech and Lateral Challenges

Let us get back to Foucault’s rather surprising speculations on finding freedom within power. These are concerns that Foucault would later take up with respect to parrhēsia. In his extended discussion of frank or fearless speech, together with associated practices of work on the self, which Foucault would develop in his final two lecture series, he not only elaborated an account of the “truth of the self” that opened transformed ethical horizons. In addressing parrhēsia as originally a political practice, before its divergence towards the sphere of “personal ethics and the formation of the moral subject,” Foucault had raised analogous questions about freedom and power. In doing so, moreover, he had drawn

a bit closer to a theme which, after all, has always been present in my analysis of the relations between the subject and truth: that of relations of power and their role in the interplay between the subject and truth. With the notion of parrhēsia … [we encounter] the possibility of posing the question of the subject and truth from the point of view of the practice of what could be called the government of oneself and others. And thus we come back to the theme of government which I studied some years ago. It seems to me that by examining the notion of parrhēsia we can see how the analysis of modes of veridiction, the study of techniques of governmentality, and the identification of forms of practice of self interweave. Connecting together mods of veridiction, techniques of governmentality, and practices of the self is basically what I have always been trying to do (CT, p. 8).

The Courage of Truth will go on to ask forthrightly how the “truth of the self” might turn the conscription of truth by power back against itself (not least in the cracked mirror of Cynic practice). More broadly, this “truth” would involve precisely those processes of “veridiction” by which the subject was partially constituted as such. As a means by which truth becomes manifest, “veridiction” remained in proximity not only to those “practices of the self” addressed by Foucault in these later lectures, but also to governmental techniques (as e.g. in BB). These truth practices all “interweave” with each other.

Foucault’s accounts of parrhēsia as “fearless speech,” in his lectures at Berkeley, and in his fuller account of Cynic practices in the final Collège de France lectures became ground zero for these inquiries. In GL, Foucault does not provide examples of what confronting power with “truth” might look like, in any practical sense. He articulates, instead, an altogether more radical prospect: the unseating of power altogether. The “movement of freeing oneself from power” has to do with a specific critical standpoint or “attitude” that consists

in thinking that no power goes without saying, that no power, of whatever kind, is obvious or inevitable, and that consequently no power warrants being taken for granted. Power has no intrinsic legitimacy. On the basis of this position, the approach consists in wondering, that being the case, what of the subject and relations of knowledge do we dispense with when we consider no power to be founded either by right or necessity, that all power only ever rests on the contingency and fragility of a history, that the social contract is a bluff and civil society a children’s story, [and] that there is no universal, immediate, and obvious right that can everywhere and always support any kind of relation of power (GL, p. 78).

Foucault, as he acknowledges, risks presenting a “children’s story” of his own here. He retreats from the “great philosophical approach” that would consist “in establishing a methodological doubt that suspends every certainty”. Instead, “the small lateral approach” Foucault proposes “consists in trying to bring into play in a systematic way, not the suspension of every certainty, but the non-necessity of all power of whatever kind” (GL, p. 78). These remarks will lead Foucault into his account of “anarcheology,” as well as a refusal to take “anarchy” itself off the table (“I don’t quite see why the words ‘anarchy’ and ‘anarchism’ are so pejorative that the mere fact of employing them counts as a triumphant critical discourse” [GL, p. 78]). Rather than viewing these comments as a somewhat outlandish addition to this discussion, by instead looking ahead to the later attempts to imagine an “other” truth, as well as back to his considerably earlier work on institutions, we might well see such a perpetual unseating or displacing of power, a kind of anarchy of anarchies, as a provocative summary of his wider critical project: what he had “always been trying to do.”

We may pair these remarks on this “small lateral approach” with his earlier discussion of critical “displacement”—a discussion that saw Foucault strikingly repudiate the label of “theorist.” Each time he had sought to reject “the analysis of men’s thought, behavior, and knowledge in terms of ideology” Foucault noted, he had hoped “to have carried out a very slight displacement.” This leads him “to something like a sort of secret,”

which is that for me theoretical work—and I am not in any way saying this out of pride or vanity, but rather with a profound sense of my inability—does not consist in establishing and fixing the set of positions on which I would stand and the supposedly coherent link between which would form a system. My problem, or the only theoretical work that I feel is possible for me, is leaving the trace, in the most intelligible outline possible, of the movements by which I am no longer at the place where I was earlier (GL, p. 76).

This rejection of a “plan of a permanent structure” leads him—in “the displacement by which my theoretical positions continually change”—to a further provocative statement: “let’s say that I am a negative theorist” (GL, p. 76). Those readers inclined to read Foucault as a static theorist of power or through the sudden swerve of the “ethical turn” would do well to heed this (so to speak) confession.