Power, Power Relations, and Relationships

Out of all the philosophers we’ve read so far, I think I find Foucault the one most relatable to my own thought processes (This has nothing to do with my presentation I just had to start with something). I especially liked his more in depth look into the concept of power. Foucault, to my understanding, challenges the idea that power as a concept is an externally granted “object” that you either have or you don’t. Instead, he sees power as a relationship between two parties in which one party shows dominance and the other shows submission. Meaning that, although one person may be acting as an authority, it is the other party’s choice to then either act like a subject, an equal, or a higher authority. So that an authoritarian being’s power lies in their subjects’ active submission. We’ve seen several examples of this, like in The Tempest in that Prospero’s power lies in his control over the people on the island, or that the kingsmen lose their status on the boat once the helmsmen no longer thinks them worthy of his worship; or in The Bloody Chamber (short story), that the protagonist chooses to marry and live “under” the Marquis; or even in many of the Dabydeen poems, in which the slaves reclaim their power by rebelling against their masters in spirit by singing about defiling white women and such.


If my understanding is correct, then a power-powerless relationship, when understood in this context, would be very malleable and it would consistently see a shift in power to the point where all parties are eventually equal because of their ability to cease and deny power. In this way, a relationship of power is more like a relationship of compromise and coordination (or not because I tend to have a pretty “we’re all in this together” view of the world).

I’m trying to lead to the question I have, which I hope will make sense now:

If power (as an external object that is passed down a hierarchy) does not exist, but only the dominance and submission of interacting parties, is it possible to re-frame the entire hierarchical structure of our modern and majorly capitalist society so that the need or concept of “power” is eliminated? In other words, if we never saw power as a hierarchy, but initially defined it the way Foucault has, would our society look more like Rousseau’s nascent society? Or something more socialist/communist? If we start trying to shift out paradigm now, is there a middle ground that we could effectively reach?


3 Thoughts.

  1. Hey Farah,
    I could definitely feel your enthusiasm as you discussed your perspective on this in-depth in class. I think it would be interesting to re-evaluate traditional power (like with the sovereign and his people, or the lord and his serfs, and such) from Foucault’s perspective – I feel like he mentions feudalism somewhere in the text, but I don’t remember where.
    Anyways, if the serfs, tenant farmers had such a perception of themselves as willing players in the power mechanism, what would happen? I guess it would be difficult because they were largely illiterate, and much of their existence consisted of serving their lord and sort of being consigned to their own class without considering the concept of resisting. But if they did do anything, would their resistance have any effectiveness if the lord always had his knights or mercenaries or whoever take care of the situation? And even later on, when power began to centralize around the king in certain countries (France and the Bourbon monarchs being one of them), and the throne began to subdue the nobles and acquire actual military power to enforce their will, would whatever effort made by the people to change the dynamic be quickly quashed? The French Revolution was definitely a turning point in bringing society into the disciplinary methods that Foucault elaborates upon, as people finally rose up to overturn the monarchy, but before that, it seems like a lot of uprisings are isolated incidents that somehow fade out or are put down, and don’t get much traction, as mentioned in the second chapter of the first section (I believe).
    I think it’s interesting to look at history with Foucault’s more modern interpretation of power – we definitely get a sense of how much more complex human relationships have become, and how much modernity has contributed to humanity generally understanding themselves better, power relations being a big part of that. Let me know what you think!

    • Hey Elliott,

      You’re definitely raising a lot of points I wanted to talk about today! I think it’d also be interesting to re-evaluate traditional powers from the perspective of those in power. How would a monarch or sovereign understand leadership if he/she felt as though they were dealing with a mass of equals for which they had responsibility, and furthermore have to deal with reasonably because they know their people are people with choice and not obedient or disobedient subordinates?

      To answer your question, though, I think it could have gone a few different ways. Assuming the sovereign still had an army and violent means of power enforcement, I think the serfs and lower classes would have rose up but eventually given up because numbers can’t always fight weapons and strategy.If not, then serfs would have probably demanded their rights aggressively, not backing down and firming holding onto their understanding of power and the influential place in society. After this they would either “win” and establish a form of government in which their equality is institutionally recognized or “lose” but still gain recognition as human beings and less limited rights and freedoms.

      Obviously I have no idea because I was never there and I’m just not that educated. I also can’t seem to wrap my head around the alternate idea of violent force as a means to obtain power. Like, I can understand that we are equally able to cease and deny power, but I could still violently force someone to do my bidding within this paradigm, simply because no one will choose torture over no torture. This makes the powerful that understand power through Foucault’s eyes even scarier. So really, how do we avoid a need for violence, punishment, and hierarchy if our understanding of power is not what makes us able to and likely assert dominance?

  2. I feel some déjà vu here: another great discussion, this time on Farah’s blog!

    This discussion is making me think about how even if someone has a great deal of force, they still have to rely on the other to comply. The other could choose not to. Of course, that’s unlikely in most cases, but it can happen. And the fact that single rulers have, in some places, been toppled by popular revolutions, shows that sometimes numbers can overpower force (so long as the numbers themselves have enough planning and strategy). Now, as the French Revolution showed, sometimes those overturnings just lead to the same nastiness on the other side.

    I think ideally if we could realize that influencing others requires their willing compliance, and that that is best gotten through treating them well, things would be better. Then there could be reciprocal tradeoffs–I do for you, you do for me, etc. But as long as there is compliance (whether willing or not) due to threat of force, then power relations work as the influencer wants, even if for a temporary time (which may be all they want). And reciprocal relationships require trust that the other will do their part and uphold the partnership. I imagine that it’s when such trust isn’t there that people resort to violence (maybe they agree with Hobbes: words are not enough to hold people to what they promise; they need the sword to back them). Thus force seems the more reliable option, to some (I’m guessing). Though over the long term, it’s not the best option because compliance will be taken away at the first opportunity one sees to do something different.

    I myself remain hopeful, though, because the historical trend seems to be more and more towards reciprocity and respect of others as equals, though we have far to go yet.

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