My first exposure to Michel Foucault’s work was a discussion of the omnipresent panopticon, a sort of always watching big brother that turned us into ‘subjects,’ and even had us working against ourselves in a myriad of ways. This first brush with Michel Foucault’s panopticon happened in the beginning of my narrative therapy training. It was then that I began to consider to myself how might one get out from under this syrupy thick description of power? In these beginning discussions of Foucault and in many discussions after, with more experienced narrative therapists, there was no clear consensus of what resistance might look like under such a totalizing description of power. In light of this view of power, I considered the game over, as was my hope of mustering any kind of resistance to this punitive power, or providing any sense of agency to those who I might work with in the future. I continued on with my narrative therapy training in the nagging shadow of Foucault and his panopticon, getting around my unanswered questions by going underground with my dissatisfaction with Foucault, and basically abandoning Foucault’s ideas around punitive power. I was never quite sure what to do with this highly influential theorist.
I have since discovered that I am not alone in this reading of the midcareer work of Michel Foucault. Don’t believe me? Ask the nearest narrative therapist to explain to you, if power is everywhere according to Foucault, how can we account for any resistance or agency? This nagging question of resistance is one of several Foucault criticisms Jeffrey Nealon’s book Foucault Beyond Foucault tries to reread and clarify in an effort to show how the critical consensus on Foucault got it wrong. Nealon also argues that Foucault is as relevant today as he ever was and presents the narrative practioner, such as myself, a rethinking of Foucault’s midcareer work, late work, and how Foucault’s often misunderstood writings on Biopower and its machinations can be quite relevant to the contemporary narrative therapist’s practice.
Nealon starts the book laying out the historical development and dominant criticism of Foucault. He summarizes the trajectory of Foucault’s work from the early neostructuralist Foucault; the middle “power” Foucault; to Foucault’s late work where his concern was life as a work of art. In Foucault Beyond Foucault Nealon is most interested in revisiting Foucault’s midcareer work and taking on the dominant criticism of Foucault’s work on power as a dead-end with no possibility for any subjective or collective resistance, too totalizing and too demoralizing. Nealon is also interested in Foucault’s late work on biopower and governmantality. Nealon argues that Foucault has much to teach us about the power, and resistance, that saturate our present.
One of Nealon’s main projects in Foucault Beyond Foucault is to attempt to correct what he believes is a misread of Foucault’s late work, summarized as artistic self-creation as resistance. Nealon argues that because so much of present day counter culture has become wholly normative--get a tattoo and “normative power” will shudder--and has morphed into a kind of liberal individualism, or ‘endless, fetishized self-creation.’ Nealon argues that rather than performing its totalizing work through a cultural standardization or repression, discipline now performs its work through the imperative to become resistant to the government, the “man,” or the herd.
It is here that Nealon takes up Foucault’s little understood writings on biopower and attempts to map the trajectory of sovereign power, to the increased intensity of present day biopower. Nealon argues that contemporary biopower is less interested in regulating behavior through panoptic, institutionally based training exercises, and is more interested in targeting life and lifestyles. Nealon makes his case by mapping how biopower’s punitive discourse tracks the subject, whereas traditional disciplinary power is more interested in the act. Nealon believes it is here that biopower steps out of the general formula for disciplinary power and becomes “lighter” and acquires more intense tactics. Nealon describes this as power moving from policing the act to policing the norm. It was here that I found myself wondering if Nealon has replaced one totalizing description of power with another, where could resistance be found when power has become “lighter” and more intense, attacking our very lives.
But what if people are freer than they think they are? – Jeffrey Nealon
In Foucault Beyond Foucault Jeffrey Nealon argues that in Foucault’s work “there’s quite literally nothing but agency,” and believes that the question of agency that often circulates around Foucault’s work is actually a question of “authenticity.” Nealon describes Foucault’s critics as looking for some kind of space that sits outside the workings of power for any kind of resistance that is not an effect of power. Nealon believes there is no need for this space because Foucault is quite clear that there would be no power “relation” without resistance, or the possibility of resistance.
It is here on the chapter on resistance that Nealon makes his strongest statement regarding the dominant critique of Foucault and takes on critics of ideology and the neohumanist political theorists. Nealon imagines that proclaiming “resistance is everywhere” is more damaging than “domination is everywhere” because if people are freer than they think they are, and do not need to be shown the way out, the jobs of pointing out oppression, giving voice to the people, or guiding the oppressed toward freedom would no longer be secure. So Nealon believes the question we should be concerned with is not how to mine and recover resistance from totalized power, but how to mobilize, focus, or intensify practices of resistance already in place. Nealon believes this effort can be best accomplished through what Foucault called subjugated knowledges, or knowledges from below.
Nealon wraps up the book, and his argument on resistance and agency, by insisting that to continue to story resistance as scarce is both expensive and disenabling. Nealon is clear in his belief that most people know their way around power and resistance in their own contexts and to believe the opposite is condescending.
Implications For Practice
At the time of this writing the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose energy captured North America’s attention for several months, is beginning to wane. Is the Occupy Wall Street movement’s 99% versus the 1% just a re-branding of the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie, therefore doomed to failure? Also at the time of this writing the world anxiously awaits to see what the outcome may be of the Arab Spring that restructured several governments in 2011. Will there be “real democracy” in the Middle East, or as The Who famously sings, “here’s to the new boss, same as the old boss.” Are both of these movements failed attempts of resistance to sovereign power in an age of biopower?
Narrative therapists are adept at attending to the sociopolitical in their work. Knowledgeable in gender politics, feminism, queer theory, race and privilege. But if power is restructuring, as human networks have restructured since Foucault’s death in 1984, what are the ethical implications of justice doing in our work in contemporary times? How do we as narrative therapists not fall victim to what Bruno LaTour calls ‘instant sociology’ and position those who seek are help in an us versus them strategy against power, which Nealon claims is a failed tactic for contemporary times.
In the effort of justice-doing do we lead those that seek our help into having to make a decision between ideas born out of the dominant culture, or align themselves with the counter culture. Leaving them with little room to decide for themselves how they might blend all possibilities that might be available to them. Potentially leaving those who seek are help with the feeling that they are “doing it wrong” and therefor colluding with biopower even in our efforts to help. Nealon believes this type of project, holdovers from sovereign understandings of power, can often be a stopping point of “moral condemnation or judgment rather than an ethical provocation or map.”
In the end, Nealon believes it is best meet a problem or problems outside ‘the economies of representation, assured failure, moralizing judgment, and meaning. Nealon believes that resistance is an essential fact of our everyday struggle with power and that in this struggle; new strategies and weapons are born. So what can narrative therapy gleam from this new understanding of how power is restructuring in contemporary times? I think Foucault himself can provide the map:
I concern myself with determining problems, unleashing them, revealing them within the framework of such complexity as to shut the mouths of prophets and legislators: all those who speak for others and above others. It is that moment that the complexity of the problem will be able to appear in its connection with people’s lives; and consequently, the legitimacy of a common enterprise will be able to appear through concrete questions, difficult cases, revolutionary movements, reflections, and evidence…It is all a social enterprise. (Nealon, 2008)
I can think of no more solid and hopeful argument for the practice that is narrative therapy, and the experience near approach of our practice.