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Power – which powers?

Par Mathieu Potte-bonneville
Publié par Clifford Armion le 21/01/2013
"First interpretation : « There is no power » can be understood as « there is no origin, or source, or substance, that one can reach or possess, in order to command the others and to be obeyed by them »."


Mathieu Potte-Bonneville has been an assistant professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon since early 2012 and is an associate researcher in the Anthropology of Writing laboratory (IIAC) at EHESS. He is president of the collegial assembly of the Collège international de philosophie (2010-2013 term). A specialist in the works of Michel Foucault, Bonneville is one of the administrators of the Web portal “Portail Michel Foucault,” which provides digital archives and bibliographies. He is one of the co-founders of the political and cultural quarterly, Vacarme.


To read, thirty-five years later, the essay that Jean Baudrillard published on Michel Foucault’s The Will to Knowledge is an odd experience : not only because many aspects of this intellectual fight are now litteraly archeological, in the usual sense of this word (if we haven’t forgotten Foucault, we hardly remember that time, when sexual liberation was a motto so important that interpreting it was a path to understand the whole society) ; but also because the two authors were talking and thinking in the name of a future that is now our past, or at least the shadow of our present. At the end of The Will to Knowledge, Foucault explains that if his readers have to give up their ancient ideas on sex and law, and the hypotheses of repression, it’s because men and women of the future would laugh at such a vision of the 70’s, with people constantly chatting about that so-called silent on sexuality : for that reason, he argued that Freud was an anachronism – and Baudrillard replied that Foucault’s theory itself was anachronical, because power had already disappeared, as it would become clear... in the future. So here we are – their future : but we’re not really in the mood to laugh at the paradoxs of sexual liberation (we have our own anachronisms, and many contemporary statements about, let’s say, abortion, seem to be much more out-of-time) ; and it’s not so clear that the power has disappeared as Baudrillard prophetized it.

Here’s exactly the problem I’d like to consider : what does it mean, to say that « there is no power », or that « the power has disappeared » ? This statement can be understood in various ways; I’d like to suggest that those different interpretations could help us to understand what was at stake, between Foucault and Baudrillard.

1/ First interpretation : « There is no power » can be understood as « there is no origin, or source, or substance, that one can reach or possess, in order to command the others and to be obeyed by them ». Regarding to this interpretation, we must recognize that Foucault and Baudrillard do perfectly agree – and many pages of Forget Foucault seem to repeat the very theses of The Will to Knowledge, its attacks on sovereignty and its calls for giving up any transcendantal definition of power. From a metaphysical point of view, Foucault and Baudrillard are quite difficult to distinguish.

2/ « There is no power » can also be understood as « there’s no real thing as power, even if the word ‘power’ seems to refer to such a reality ». This is the center of Baudrillard’s critics : by keeping the word « power » to build a new description of cultural and social reality, Foucault would have re-introduced the old conception of sovereign power linked to this word, to its history and its uses ; and by replacing the model of a central power by multiple micro-powers, he would have enforced the effects of political hypnosis of the word, its ability to make us believe that there are political permanent grounds to our social life. In other words, Baudrillard intents to diagnose a lack of nominalism in Foucault’s thought. Is this objection relevant ? One could reply that there’s a difference between the common uses of a word, and its theoretical uses : there’s some kind of magical thinking in Baudrillard’s plea to stop talking about power, as if avoiding the word was necessary and sufficient to change the political and philosophical concepts. But at the same time, we must admit that in the late 70’s, Foucault himself seemed to recognize that the word of « power » could lead to serious ambiguities – because the philosophical discourse cannot keep strictly theoretical, but has to deal with public debates, and with this kind of political paranoia that Foucault tried to deconstruct, especially in far-left movements : to say that « power is everywhere » (even if Foucault constantly added that it was a totally different kind of power) automatically increased the paranoia. That’s why, in his seminars at the College de France, as well as in his famous paper « the subject and power », Foucault tried to replace the word of power by other terms and concepts – governmentality, or « power relationship ».

3/ « There is no power » can be interpreted as : « there is no situation in which someone can exert his power on another, without any form of reciprocity ». On that idea, Foucault and Baudrillard partially agree – and at the same time, deeply disagree. On one hand, they both introduce reciprocity in the game of power, and in its very definition – Foucault insists on this point, not only in the works of the late-70’s, but as well in his lessons about the psychiatrical power (for example, when he analyzes the link between Charcot and the hysterical women). When Baudrillard, in Forget Foucault, objects that the power is permanently threatened by its own death, he forgets that Foucault precisely underlined this point in many pages of To Survey and Punish. But on the other hand, this forgetting has a reason : according to Baudrillard, this shadow of disrespect and reciprocity that surrounds power leads it to its end, by revealing power is only a fiction ; on the contrary, according to Foucault, this threaten is the beginning of power and a key to understand its transformations – not as a fiction designed to hide this lack of certainty, but as a strategy and as a praxis that had to deal with it all along its history. In other words, Baudrillard thinks that people have believed for a very long time that power could be absolute (and that any power took part of this absolute authority – which is the classical definition of sovereignty, since Jean Bodin Six Books of Republics) and he adds that leaders made believe it, by building fictions ; Foucault would reply that people and leaders are perfectly aware, and since a very long time, of the true nature of political game, and of the fact that any power is reversible – that’s precisely why they built so many techniques and strategies. It is not power that makes people so blind about the risks of reciprocity ; it’s the threaten of reciprocity that makes power so clever, and explains its various historical forms.

4/ « There is no power » can mean : « there is no more power, power is coming to an end ». This interpretation is the historical counterpart of the former one : in Baudrillard’s theory, the true nature of power (I mean, its inexistence) reveals itself nowadays, through the general lack of belief that haunts our societies and our relations with political structures, and through the stange equality induced by the capitalistic general equivalence ; in Foucault’s theory, the transformations of political strategies lead to a disappearing of repressive and disciplinary dispositives, replaced by soft and individual forms of management (the kind of power that Deleuze well described as « society of control »). Of course, these descriptions of the becoming of power are very different from one another : but for me, and for different reasons, they are the main weaknesses of those theories. The disciplinary structures didn’t disappeared as Foucault announced it – there are more prisons and more immigrant camps than ever in our societies, and we do have to understand this link between archaic forms of coercition and modern forms of management. At the same time, it’s difficult not to see, in contemporary disbelief regarding the power of political leaders, a trick of power itself : since the 80’s, we learned to recognize, in the « There Is No Alternative » discourse an expression of authority ; governing by impotence, and by giving oneself rules that prevent leaders to do anything, is one of the great inventions of our times – thats’s why political movements often have to recreate the reality of power, by pointing at accountabilities, and by naming people who can’t say that they’re not responsible.

5/ « There is no power » could also mean : « there is a no-power :  it is wrong that power explains anything, for there is a zone, a space or a margin of no-power in individual and collective experiences – and that’s this space that a radical theory should defend ». This interpretation is very important, for it implies at last three debates : on the function of theory and writing ; on the deepness of the alternative that a political theory would have to promote ; on the distance that should be created from power, in order to contest or to transform it.

a) About the function of writing, Baudrillard’s Forget Foucault begins with this idea that Foucault’s style, just as the power that he describes, invades the whole space of discourse, and suppresses any vacuum where it would stay possible to re-think or re-write the story he tells. Are Foucault’s books, and Foucault’s concept of power, without any « outside » ? But one should reply that, in Foucault’s writings, « the outside » has always been... outside, and were never included in the historical description itself, because it’s not a reality of the same kind than historical events (the « archaeology of a silence » that History of Madness promised, or the « roaring of the battle » that closes To Survey and Punish, have to stay at the margins of the books, according to Foucault). In other words, there’s a disagreement between Foucault and Baudrillard, over the limits of writing regarding to the experiences that stand outside the order of power.

b) There’s also a disagreement between them, over the idea that a radical philosophy should promote an alternative to power. According to Baudrillard, Foucault’s theory of power is not radical enough, because it maintains the reference to power as a ground (just like Deleuze maintains the reference to desire), so that the concepts created by Deleuze and Foucault are quite equivalent to one another – and equivalent to the general discourse from which the theory should find the strenght to escape. But I don’t think that Foucault would accept the background of this objection : because being « radical » can’t be his philosophical ambition, since he criticizes, after Nietzsche, any metaphysical search for the roots (radices) ; and because for him, the interest of a theory is based, not on its binary difference from the rest of the discourse, of the theories or the political positions available at the same time, but on its ability to create differences between them, in the social and cultural field. Even if it sounds strange, I don’t see Foucault as a radical thinker – his purpose is certainly not to draw a line between power and its contrary.

c) If Baudrillard’s purpose is to create a crucial difference, that could separate the theory from the indifferent world of capitalistic values, Foucault’s objective should be to find the conditions for a distance in the field of powers. Despite this difference, it is fascinating to notice that, in a way, they searched in parallel directions, since Foucault based his theory of subjectivation on the study of the arts of love, where Baudrillard developed his own theory of seduction. Is a comparison between those two sets of concepts possible and relevant ? Is there somehow a common field between « aesthetics of the self » and seduction ? This should be one part of our discussion in New-York.

Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre de la quatrième saison du festival "Walls and Bridges", organisé par la Villa Gillet, qui s'est tenu à New York du 11 au 20 octobre 2012.
Pour citer cette ressource :

Mathieu Potte-bonneville, "Power – which powers?", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2013. Consulté le 12/04/2021. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/power-which-powers-

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  • Foucault
  • Baudrillard
  • Will to Knowledge
  • pouvoir