Andy Blunden September 2005

Foucault’s Discursive Subject

Foucault is credited with “deconstruction of the subject,” but in reality what Foucault has given us is a critique of the Cartesian subject, the intuitively-given individual subject deemed the original site of all cognitive representation and social action. Foucault’s critique is a continuation of the structuralist project of weakening the concept of agency, a critique which has contributed to the actual demolition of subjectivity since the 1980s.

In The History of Sexuality Volume 1, Foucault demonstrates that even such a basic human need as sexuality is socially constructed; there is no “pre-social” sex drive.

Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power. [p. 106]

As I read this then, even if deep down in the human organism there is some need for food, warmth, love and sexual intercourse, psychoanalysis notwithstanding, it has been amply demonstrated that such ‘essential’ drives and needs are buried so deep beneath elastic and socially constructed interpretations, that the constructivist hypothesis is by far the more relevant as opposed to the essentialist, at least for the purposes of understanding modern society. Human beings are their own product; our essence is nothing but the need to negate and produce our own being; humanity is essentially non-essential.

If a person’s needs do not originate in an individual’s ‘inner nature’, but are socially constructed, the same is even more true of cognition, the activity of understanding the world, which is shaped by socially available discourse and objectified in books, artefacts, languages, institutions, etc., etc. This word ‘discourse’ is central to Foucault of course.

“We must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse, or between the dominant discourse and the dominated one; but as a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies.” [p. 100]

Here the concept of ‘discourse’ is like that of ‘paradigm’ in that both arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ are posed within the terms of a single all-embracing ‘language.’

“It is this distribution that we must reconstruct, with the things said and those concealed, ... the variants and different effects – according to who is speaking, his position of power, the institutional context in which he happens to be situated ...” [p. 100]

An argument cannot be criticised just in its own terms; analysis must reveal the unspoken ‘outside’ of discourse, and how discourse shapes relations of power by the implicit relations between the speaker and what is spoken. But it should be noted that ‘discourse’ is for Foucault, a social and material, rather than purely ideal or linguistic category:

“it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together.” [p. 100]

Such a view leaves room for agency at the margins, so to speak:

“Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it. ...” [p. 101]

If both a person’s needs and understanding are socially constructed, the same is even more true of agency, in which people attempt to assert themselves in the social field.

Is it possible to talk of power that is not the power of some subject? ‘Power’ is for Foucault like an Hegelian Spirit, a “ruse of history,” an almost metaphysical substance. “Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere,” and “one is always ‘inside’ power, there is no ‘escaping’ it.”

For Foucault, it is in principle impossible to oppose power, because it is only with power that power can be opposed, an observation that is possible once one has made ‘power’ into an undifferentiated metaphysical substance, detachable from the agents whose power it is. “Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations, and serving as a general matrix. – no such duality extending from the top down and reacting on more and more limited groups to the very depths of the social body.” [p. 93]

“Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power. Should it be said that one is always ‘inside’ power, there is no ‘escaping’ it, there is no absolute outside where it is concerned.” [p. 94]

Correctly warning us against mechanistic and na´ve conceptions of power which would take institutions at face value, as ‘sources’ rather than ‘concentrations’ of power, he says:

The “intelligibility of the social order, must not be sought in the primary existence of a central point, in a unique source of sovereignty from which secondary and descendant forms would emanate; it is the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power, but the latter are always local and unstable, and ‘Power’, ... is simply the over-all effect that emerges from all these mobilities.” [p. 93]

Interestingly, this form of structuralism, gives no more power to individuals who run great institutions than it gives to individuals who have no power in the obvious sense as “decision-makers”: all are caught up in “relationships of force.” “Major dominations are the hegemonic effects that are sustained by all these confrontations.” [p. 94]

But this is a metaphysics which is in danger of falling into nullity.

The truest actualisation of this type of relation is in the market, where the small change of commerce can be collected into vast capitals, which nevertheless remain subject to the law of capital. Foucault was writing at a time when the second great (monetarist) attempt at macro-economic control of the world economy was approaching exhaustion, and the capitalist powers were about to embark on the strategy of “microeconomic reform.” The symmetry with Foucault’s observations is remarkable.

In a capitalist economy, the whole network of power relations are generated on the basis of a single ethical relation of exchange of equivalents, the truth of which is an ethical horizon beyond which the market agents cannot see. Doubtless, a traditional society could be understood in similar terms, with power seeming to be wielded by a person occupying a position in a social structure, more properly understood as originating in the impersonal social structure, transmitted through pervasive microscopic and invisible relations of domination.

“Power relations [do not] result from the choice or decision of an individual subject; let us not look for the headquarters that presides over its rationality; [p. 94]

I think one must give to Foucault that this is a valid description of the mechanisms of power within any unitary culture, that is to say, within the ‘thick ethos’ of a society in which there is ‘no outside’ to the governing ethos, typical of which would be traditional societies, or feudal societies in which personality was almost totally absorbed in subject-position, or even within an institution such as the market or the family, which although not exhaustive is pervasive. Under such conditions, the possibilities of resistance can be described in Foucauldian terms:

“there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case: resistances that are possible, necessary, improbable; others that are spontaneous, savage, solitary, concerted, rampant, or violent;” [p. 96]

Consistent with the method of Archaeology of Knowledge, then, revolution requires the linking up of a multiplicity of points of resistance:

“... it is doubtless the strategic codification of these points of resistance that makes a revolution possible, somewhat similar to the way in which the state relies on the institutional integration of power relationships.” [p. 96]

The problem with this very powerful insight into the exercise of power without an apparatus of repression, is that the possibility of a discourse being subject to real critique is effectively excluded, leaving only the margins exposed:

“Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it. ... There is not, on the one side, a discourse of power, and opposite to it, another discourse that runs counter to it. Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations; there can exist different and even contradictory discourses within the same strategy; they can, on the contrary, circulate without changing their form from one strategy to another, opposing strategy.” [p. 102]

This conception expresses the aspect of modernity as ‘processes without subjects’:

“Power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective. If in fact they are intelligible, this is not because they are the effect of another instance that ‘explains’ them, but rather because they are imbued, through and through, with calculation: there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives. But this does not mean that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject; let us not look for the headquarters that presides over its rationality; neither the caste which governs, nor the groups which control the state apparatus, nor those who make the most important economic decisions direct the entire network of power that functions in a society (and makes it function); ...” [p. 94-5]

A discourse is the linguistic or semiotic form adopted by a set of relationships taken as natural, rather than socially constructed. Thus, discourse takes on the appearance of a game, in which moves are made according to a set of rules; while moves may be to the advantage or not of an actor, the rules are a given, the game does not include the making of the rules. In this view, society resembles a mass of people playing chess, chinese chequers and drafts with each other. Not only the moves, but the aims, the needs to be fulfilled, are formed by the games they play. The concept of “discourse,” as Foucault presents it, does differ from “language games” because the games support and express relations of power and subordination, and the moves entail force and its effects are inscribed on the body. But a number of important things are left out of the picture here.

Firstly, the concept of discourse excludes the idea that there is an outside to discourse which is not socially constructed, but natural science for example has always had to wrestle with the fact that any theory, notwithstanding the fact that everyone believes in it, can fail the test of practice, and will eventually, as a result, attract opponents and undergo the famous “paradigm shift” associated with scientific revolutions; the same is true of discourses which simply fail to meet human needs, either the needs that they create or other needs. In the test of practice there is undoubtedly a significant cultural and historical moment, but there is also always a natural or extra-social moment. Unless you believe that global warming, exhaustion of energy reserves, atmospheric and ocean pollution, etc., are all myths (i.e., just discourses), these phenomena mark one limit for the Foucauldian conception of the world. In fact Nature shows itself in many ways within social relations. There are objective measures of the validity of a discourse.

Secondly, discourses can confront one another as opponents, with rival institutions and social classes harbouring explicitly hostile discourses, mobilising force against one another. In such cases no special science is needed to be aware of the conflict, but nor should science blind us to the obvious. Foucault’s insight that power may be exercised without such open contradiction, does not exclude the fact that this is a normal situation in class society. Real ethical conflicts essentially escape the Foucauldian viewpoint. ‘How should we live?’ Except insofar as this ‘should’ refers back to the discourse against which it is directed, Foucault can have no answer to this question. One discourse is as good as another.

Thirdly and finally, the conception of processes without subjects, of “intentional but nonsubjective” exercise of power does characterise an aspect of the modern condition. But in theorising this aspect of modernity we must take care to critique it, rather than reifying it by rationalising it. The inability of people to attain an effective voice in their own lives and our collective failure to achieve simple social objectives, such as the elimination of poverty and war, is testimony to the fact that lack of subjectivity is a source of social injustice today.

But what exactly would ‘subjectivity’ mean in the Foucauldian world? Or, to put it differently, is it possible to recover a notion of subjectivity which retains the essential insights that Foucault has given us?

  1. Can we recover a notion of practical knowledge of an objective world distinguishable from knowledge internal to a discourse?
  2. Can we recover a notion of a subject with human needs which are more than just an effect of discourse, or does this necessarily lead us into an indefensible ‘essentialism'?
  3. Can we recover a meaningful notion of agency, consistent with the idea of ‘discourse’ and ‘availability’ without falling into determinism or voluntarism?

We will take these issues one at a time, but before we can take a step forward, we have to let go of the Cartesian conception of the subject as a knowing, individual agent. The human psyche is a real thing just as the human body is a real thing, but neither a body nor a psyche constitute a subject. Subjectivity is a relationship, an active, human relationship, and it is only in terms of such a collaborative relationship that we can talk of practical knowledge, human needs which are more than the basest of biological inputs, and agency. We have to conceive of a subject which encompasses the agency of mortal individuals as well as discourse – understood as both really-existing practical relations of cooperation and ideal products of culture – words images, concepts, artefacts, and so on.

1. Knowledge

The epistemological problem of whether knowledge is entirely enclosed by the paradigm or discourse within which it exists is one that has received ample attention over the past century, and there is no need to recapitulate that debate here. A recent example is the question as to whether poverty exists and can be measured objectively or is on the contrary simply a construct of the setting of the ‘poverty line’ in welfare discourses. Foucault seemed on strong ground when he pointed out that the very concept of ‘sex’ is constructed from a multiplicity of pleasures, discourses, needs, and so on, and poverty researchers would do well to learn from this: both poverty and the concept of poverty are social constructs, differing in nature from one epoch or culture to the next, so if they are to be objective and socially relevant, measures of poverty must be constructed critically. It turns out in fact that poverty is subject to objective measurement (life expectancy, rates of psychiatric admissions, child abuse, imprisonment, etc.), even though such measures only present themselves as a result of a critique of the na´ve/intuitive conception of poverty based exclusively on income and monetary wealth. And the line which asserts that on the contrary, the concept of poverty is simply a linguistic construct leads to profoundly reactionary conclusions.

Natural science first took up this question on its own territory with Charles Sanders Peirce’s conception of Pragmatism (1878) and Percy Bridgman’s Operationalism (1927), culminating in Thomas Kuhn’s concept of “paradigm” (1962). Ultimately however, the validity of a theory is tested on the ground of ethics, that is to say, on the domain of a whole form of life. This insight, which can be traced back to Hegel, was first formulated within the discourse of natural science by Jacques Monod, the 1965 Nobel Laureate for Biology. Critique of knowledge can find a firm ground only in ethics, and this is something that Foucault fails to provide.

How is knowledge constituted then? Knowledge is the knowledge of a subject. The Cartesian conception of the subject as a thinking ego came under attack centuries before M. Foucault came on the scene. An individual with working nervous system and sense organs, can know nothing; in addition to the nervous and sensori-motor systems with which every human individual is endowed, knowledge presupposes that the individual is participating in some collaborative activity, engaging both systems, with other people, by means of which their needs a met. Collaborative activity connects people with the entire history of humanity through languages, symbols and images, artefacts, not to mention the human bodies and sense organs shaped by many generations of such activity. The knowledge a person has makes sense to them only to the extent that it is connected with their active use of their body in meeting human needs; but closer examination shows that the specific content of that knowledge is formed not by the individual themself but by the efforts of the individual to collaborate with others using and modifying the ideal entities which mediate their collaboration. The knowing subject therefore includes not only the (socially constructed) nervous and sensori-motor systems of the individual person, but also the concept and the material products (including words and images) embodying that concept, used to recognise and make sense of sense perceptions, and the system of human relations and institutions, through which the concept is brought into relation to the person.

Let me be clear here: it is not my contention that an individual “uses” artefacts and other people in order to acquire knowledge. I am saying that the knowing subject is a specific dynamic combination of individuals, ideals and social collaboration. A “thought” unrelated to any social action or meaningful artefact (word, symbol, etc.) would be as absurd as a reflection without its object, the meaning of a nonsense word, or a nation with no citizens.

Foucault directs his fire against the na´ve/intuitive Cartesian conception of knowledge, in support of an idea of knowledge constituted by discourse; discourse is understood as the unity of an ideal conceptual structure and a real set of power relations between people. However, Foucault is seen not as describing a more concrete conception of the subject, but rather as “deconstructing” the subject, leaving us the absurdity of knowledge without a subject.

On the contrary, knowledge is knowledge of some subject, some needy social agent.

2. Human Needs

As Marx said at length in the 1844 Manuscripts, “the forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present.”

“The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object – an object made by man for man. The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians.” [Private Property and Communism, Marx 1844]

Both human capacities and human needs have been shaped by the historical development of the social cooperation and the division of labour. A person’s needs are not found in some inner personal world, but on the contrary in the social world in which both their needs and the means of their satisfaction are produced; and not just needs, but a person’s entire identity is produced through their activity with other people. The insight that the sense organs are the product of social development, and can sense only what is socially meaningful certainly undermines the idea of a sovereign individual subject, but it does not undermine the concept of subjectivity as such. Discourse shapes the sense organs, but equally, social relations acquire their sense organs in human individuals. Human eyes and ears are the sense organs of subjects, not of individual subjects, but of social subjects, structured around a division of labour and the social production of human life.

So Foucault is right when he argues that there is no such thing as a pre-social ‘sex’ in the human organism, only a range of pleasures and stimuli, arbitrarily bunched together under a concept of sexuality which is a cultural-historical product; but it is equally evident that there can be no sexuality without those pleasures and stimuli which exist only in human bodies. It turns out that human needs are immensely malleable, more malleable than seems imaginable at first, but they remain, nevertheless, human needs.

“all the organs of his individual being [are] the appropriation of human reality. Their orientation to the object is the manifestation of the human reality, ... it is human activity and human suffering” [Private Property and Communism, Marx 1844]

3. Agency

If it be granted that human knowledge and human needs are the labour of social subjects actualised by individuals, and that knowledge and needs are irreducibly the functions of real, individual, suffering human beings, it may still be doubted that it is in any way sensible to talk about individual agency.

“Freedom is the understanding of necessity” said Hegel; an individual is free only to the extent that they can make an intelligent choice between real possibilities, rather than being governed by ‘blind necessity’. Hegel reserved real freedom for ‘world historic heroes’, like Napoleon, who directly express the World Spirit in their lives. Many who have rejected Hegel’s metaphysical conception of history would still grant that the idea of self-determination, or sovereignty, as applied to an individual is an absurdity. At the same time, most frequently when people use the word ‘subject’ they mean precisely that individual agent who is deemed, on the contrary to lack agency in any real sense of the word. So it is here surely that Foucault’s critique would seem to have the most purchase.

It is worthwhile to pause and clarify what is meant by “self-determination.” Compare the definition given by Kant in his original definition of the subject of moral philosophy and the definition of sovereignty in the law of nations:

A person is a subject whose actions can be imputed to him. ... a person is subject to no other laws than those he gives to himself, either alone or at least along with others. (Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals)

and

“sovereignty, the principle that each nation answers only to its own domestic order and is not accountable to a larger international community, save only to the extent that it has consented to do so.” (Bederman, International Law Frameworks, p. 50)

The same parallelism is found in the “recognition” paradigm of sovereignty:

“the relations of free beings to one another is a relation of reciprocal interaction throughintelligence and freedom. One cannot recognise the other if both do not mutually recognise each other.” (Fichte, Foundations of Natural Right, p. 42)

and

“an unspoken assumption in the criterion for statehood ... that other nations are prepared to treat a particular entity as a member of the family of nations.” (Bederman, International Law Frameworks, p. 54)

Thus we see that the concepts of sovereignty developed by the founders of modern moral philosophy (Kant and Fichte) align with the concepts of sovereignty still used in international law to this day. The meaning of the concept in the context of the law of nations is somewhat clearer than in the context of moral philosophy where the writers we have quoted, pioneers of bourgeois ideology, proposed the individual person as a sovereign subject. Clearly such a conception is idealistic; the individual as a sovereign subject is something that can only be imagined for a faraway future society: “... an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” [The Communist Manifesto, 1848] Nevertheless, this conception of self-determination can serve as a norm against which the meaning of ‘subject’ as a ‘free being’ (to use Fichte’s terminology) can be measured.

An individual sees themself in the action of others, where that action fulfils a person’s own aspirations and is the completion of the person’s own actions; people make a ‘psychic investment’ (to use James Coleman’s terminology) in other people. Thus we can see that individuals even today can exercise self-determination, that is to say ‘agency’, in and through their relationships with others. ‘Self-determination’ does not and never did imply infinite negative freedom, that is to say, to be able to determine one’s actions purely and simply without regard to the freedom of others. Rather, ‘self-determination’ implies being subject only to laws which the subject may be deemed to have set for themself, either alone or along with others like oneself. Implicit in this concept are norms of procedural fairness appropriate to subjects which recognise each other as moral equals.

Thus an individual can enjoy self-determination to the extent that they can freely invest themselves in the actions of social subjects which enjoy self-determination in these terms.

A number of issues bear on the question as to whether it is possible for individuals to enjoy self-determination through participation in social subjectivity. These include (i) the presence of ‘discursive heterogeneity’, that is, the presence of competing discourses which give individuals the opportunity to take a critical stance in relation to any given discourse before making a ‘psychic investment’ in it; (ii) if we allow that companies, that is, subjects whose self-determination is directly subject to the ‘laws of economics’ can allow only qualified access to self-determination, then (iii) the existence of relations of trust and solidarity between mutually independent subjects, which offer opportunities for individuals to participate in determining the conditions of their own lives, and (iv) people in general have some measure of real control over the products of their own labour.

As it happens, the past couple of decades have seen the growth of social conditions in which the great mass of people are experiencing a ‘loss of agency’, as power becomes more and more concentrated in a relatively small number of great corporations, subject to the “laws of the market,” while all other forms of social collaboration are being destroyed and society atomised. This is where our attention needs to be focused. To theorise this as if subjectivity was only ever an illusion, or even, as some do, paint ‘the subject’ as an essentially oppressive entity anyway, only makes the situation worse.

What Foucault can help us with though is this: in the modern world it is no longer plausible to conceptualise agency in terms of ‘social subjects’, understood as mutually independent institutions, organisations, social movements and so on. The notions of discourse and interpellation into subject positions within a multiplicity of narratives, actually give us a better approach to the conception of subjectivity and self-determination. The kind of mechanical field presupposed in both the above quotes defining the notion of sovereignty, needs to be replaced with a field of interlocking discourses in which each effects a kind of ‘matrix transformation’ on relationships in the others. This is a complex task, but offers a way forward.


All quotes from Foucault refer to The History of Sexuality. An Introduction. Volume I. Michel Foucault, translated by Robert Hurley, Vintage Books 1990.