upside-down Foucault

Hypothesis: every space where Michael Foucault discovered the operation of power is also a venue for creativity, collaboration, and a deepening of human subjectivity.

By way of background: I respect Foucault as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. Although deeply influenced by other writers and activists, he made his own crucial discoveries. In particular, he found power operating in places where it had been largely overlooked, such as clinics, classrooms, and projects of social science. Further, he understood that power is not just a matter of A deliberately making B do what A wants. It rather shapes all of our desires, goals, and beliefs. Its influence on beliefs suggests that knowledge and power are inseparable, so that even our understanding of power is determined by power. Despite the skeptical implications of Foucault’s epistemology, he struggled in an exemplary fashion to get the theory right, revising it constantly. He traveled a long intellectual road, directed by his own conscience and experience rather than any kind of careerism.

So it is as a kind of homage to Foucault that I suggest flipping his theory upside-down. Just as close, critical observation of people in routine settings can reveal the operations of power, so we can detect people developing, growing, reflecting, and collaborating voluntarily. To be sure, social contexts fall on a spectrum from dehumanizing to humanizing, with prisons at one end (not far from office cubicles), and artists’ ateliers at the other. But it would be just as wrong to interpret a whole society as a prison as to view it all as a jazz band. And, I would hypothesize, even in the modern US prison system–swollen in numbers, starved of resources for education and culture, plagued by rape and abuse, and racially biased–one could find evidence of creativity as well as power.

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