Vitalism and Affection in Foucault’s Method and Power


For Foucault, power does not simply emerge from the top-down, commonly attributed to a sovereign wielding authority over its subjects. Instead, as Deleuze writes in Foucault, power is “less a property than a strategy, and its effects cannot be attributed to an appropriation ‘but to dispositions, manoeuvres, tactics, techniques, and functionings’; ‘it is exercised rather than possessed; it is not the ‘privilege’, acquired or preserved . . . but the overall effect of its strategic positions.” F, 25. Because power is the result of strategic positions and relations, Deleuze and Foucault uses a functional microanalysis to analyze the “possible relations between forces” that constitute power. F, 27. This analysis reveals two key ideas, amongst many. First, power cannot be ‘known,’ it can only be exercised and practiced. Second, because resistance is essential to power, it is possible to develop strategies to resist force. Interestingly, both Foucault’s method and conception of power contain a certain vitalism.

1.  Foucault’s Diagrammic Method

Deleuze identifies two characteristics of Foucault’s thinking and writing. First, Foucault imbues his writing with a unique sense of “gaiety in horror” or a “great joy which is not the ambivalent joy of hatred, but the joy of wanting to destroy whatever mutilates life.” F, 23. Deleuze notes that “Foucault’s book [Disicpline and Punish] is full of a joy and jubilation that blends in with the splendor of its style and the politics of its content.” F, 23 (emphasis added). Here Deleuze implies that the political aim of Foucault is filled with joy and affirmation, a theme reiterated in Deleuze’s other works on Spinoza and Nietzsche. This sheds some light on Foucault’s goals in writing. Second, Foucault “is not content to say that we must rethink certain notions; he does not even say it; he just does it, and in this way proposes new co-ordinates for praxis.” F, 30. Foucault is not just concerned with what or how we think, but how we act or practice. Foucault’s functional microanalysis could be understood within these two aims, a joyous attitude and an emphasis on practice.

Deleuze’s description of Foucault’s methodology is far from formal and rote. Deleuze characterizes Foucault’s methodology as theatrical: “Analysis and illustration go hand in hand, offering us a microphysics of power and a political investment of the body. These illustrations are coloured in on a minutely drawn map.” F, 24. Usually, people understand illustrations and analysis as serving two different goals. Illustrations are creative or interpretive, while analysis is rigorous and objective. Illustrations serve analysis by analogizing or illustrating a principle. For Foucault, illustrations express the effects of analysis. Id. Foucault understands each historical strata as being composed of “visible and articulable features unique to each age which goes beyond any behavior, mentality or set of ideas, since it makes these things possible.” F, 48-49. Foucault’s analysis is meant to show the very functions of power. F, 25 (“Foucault shows that . . . the State itself appears as the overall effect or result of a series of interacting wheels or structures which are located at a completely different level, and which constitute a ‘microphysics of power’”). But how precisely does Foucault show or illustrate power-relations?

Foucault gives us a “new topology [that] no longer locates the origin of power in a privileged place.” F, 26. Foucault describes particular social phenomena in terms of a diagram or a “display of the relations between forces which constitute power . . . .” F, 36. Diagrams also show the distribution of the power to affect and the power to be affected and are the combination of the non-formalized pure functions and unformed pure matter. F, 72-73. The diagram is a map of the various relationships between forces or intensities, which plot out specific points where power circulates and moves through. Id. Both Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality discuss two different functions of force. In Discipline and Punish, the Panopticon is a diagram which shows power operating as a function of force aimed at “imposing a particular taste or conduct on a multiplicity of particular individuals” located in a discrete space (like in schools or prison). F, 72. The History of Sexuality discusses the function of administering and controlling life across broader populations. Id. In both diagrams, Foucault illustrates a general form of power or an abstract machine, a machine that is “blind and mute, even though it makes others see and speak.” F, 34.

2.  Power, Knowledge, and Resistance

Foucault defines power as “a relation between forces.” F, 70. Forces are never singular and exist in relation with other forces. Id. (“[F]orce has no other object or subject than force”). Forces imply power relations, insofar that each force has the power to affect others and the capacity to be affected by others. F, 71. Foucault contrasts power with knowledge, which primarily deals with forms. F, 72. Power, on the other hand, passes only through forces. F, 73. But here Foucault is not attempting to argue that there is no relationship between power and knowledge. Instead, Foucault is attempting to show that both power and knowledge are irreducible to the other. Power and knowledge are never free in relation to the other and are linked on “the basis of their difference.” F, 75. The difference between the two depend on their specific roles. Id.   The fundamental difference between knowledge and power constitutes a type of mutual immanence: “[K]nowledge never refers to a subject who is free in relation to a diagram of power, but neither is the latter ever free in relation to the forces of knowledge which actualize it.” F, 74.

Power determines particular features and affects. F, 75. Power is able to both integrate and stabilize relations or particular points, as well as separating or dividing these relationships. Knowledge, on the other hand, creates forms and practices that emerge from the difference between the articulable and the visible. F, 51. Knowledge deals with “formed substances and formalized functions by using the receptive kind of visible element, or the spontaneous kind of articulable element.” F, 77. Power establishes contact “between unformed matter (receptivity) and unformalized functions (spontaneity).” Id. Deleuze terms this space between matter and unformalized functions the outside, or the unformed element of forces, which “stirs up their relations and draws out their diagrams.” F, 43. In contrast to knowledge, the Deleuzian-Foucauldian conception of power seems to be generative, since power seems to be the source of affection as the contact between receptivity and spontaneity.

Power’s emphasis on the affective or embodied is what, in part, allows for resistance. The paradox of power is that “resistance comes first , to the extent that power relations operate completely within the diagram, while resistances necessarily operate in a direct relation with the outside from which the diagrams emerge.” F, 89. The social field, the domain where power relations emerge, creates more resistances than strategies of power. F, 90. This occurs because the diagram of power abandons the “model of sovereignty in favour of a disciplinary model, when it becomes the ‘bio-power’ or ‘bio-politics’ of populations, controlling and administering life. . . .” F, 92. Here life is the new object of power; the sovereign privilege of force is administered in the name of race, space, and population.

But contrary to the Marxian models of power, there is no need to “uphold man in order to resist.” F, 92. Both Foucault and Deleuze do not understand resistance as something men and women wield to overthrow a sovereign power. Resistance means something both deeper and broader: “When power becomes bio-power resistance becomes the power of life, a vital power that cannot be confined within species, environment or the paths of a particular diagram.” Id. Resistance, as a force from outside power, emerges from a certain vitalism that is present in both Foucault’s style of writing and politics. F, 93. Power is necessarily incomplete, according to Foucault, since it depends on the dominated. According to Foucault, power invests in the dominated, “passes through them and with the help of them, relying on them just as they, in their struggle against power, rely on the hold it exerts on them.” F, 28. This is why Foucault believes that every diagram also contains the relatively free and unbounded points of creativity, along with its points of power relationships. F, 44. Similarly, because now power has invested itself into life, life can in turn produce resisting forces to power.