There are a number of tensions in feminism’s engagement with the Foucauldian conceptualisation of the operation of power. Because power in Foucault can be conceptualised as ever-changing, generating points of intensity, it can also be seen as generating points of resistance. While many forms of feminism are committed to an organisation of the mass of women, united by a common oppression and a common struggle against patriarchy, Foucault would argue that even if such mass movements were possible, they may not be the most effective forms for change. As Grosz (1990a) argues, smaller groups of well-positioned militants may well be more successful in effecting change than large-scale organisations. Foucault does recognise the necessity for links between local and global forms of power. As he maintains, ‘the local and the global mutually condition each other.. .No local form of power can sustain itself for any length of time without the broader context of global overarching alignments’ (Foucault 1980:94).

Soper’s ‘Productive Contradictions’ (1993) maintains that the paradoxes in Foucault’s account of power-knowledge are responsible for some specific tensions between feminism and Foucault. Soper argues that Foucault says relatively little about the sources of power and does not offer an account of women’s oppression or women’s resistance to oppression. However, as she notes, he does encourage feminism to think more deeply and more self­critically about both oppression and liberation. Grimshaw (1993) maintains that since Foucault sees power as everywhere, it is difficult for him to distinguish between different forms of power and this makes it problematic to develop an adequate theory of women’s resistance to power. Fraser also notes that Foucault does not interrogate power regimes from the standpoint of their legitimacy or illegitimacy. However, she argues that Foucault’s conceptualisation of power has brought to light some neglected features of the operation of power in modern life. Further, Fraser (1989:28) argues that Foucault’s account of modern power ‘constitutes good grounds for rejecting some fairly widespread strategic and normative political orientations and for adopting instead the standpoint of a “politics of everyday life”’.

Ultimately the tensions between feminism and Foucault can be traced to conceptual ambiguities in Foucault’s notion of power. Fraser maintains that Foucault calls too many different sorts of things ‘power’. While she agrees that there can be no social practices without power, this does not imply that all forms of power are normatively equivalent, nor that all social practices are equivalent. Fraser (1989) argues that it is essential to Foucault’s own project that he is able to distinguish between sets of practices and forms of constraint. However, she maintains that this requires greater normative resources than Foucault possesses, and ultimately the crucial defect in Foucault’s conception of power is the absence of a clear, normative framework.


The tensions raised by feminism’s engagement with Foucault emanate in part from what are seen as ambiguities or inconsistencies in his analysis of discourse. Soper (1993) explores the relationship between discourse and oppression. Soper maintains that if Foucault is saying that oppression is constituted in discourses and therefore cannot exist prior to (or outside) discourses, then Foucault’s accounts of discourse become arbitrary in their distancing from material circumstances. The nature of Foucault’s understanding of both discourse and the relationship between discourse, the ‘pre-discursive’ and the ‘extra-discursive’ is explored below.

Foucault argues, throughout his work, that discourse is not merely a concept, but that discourses have an objective reality and so, for Foucault, they have a quality of ‘exteriority’ (Foucault 1991:60). In the article ‘Politics and the Study of Discourse’, Foucault outlines the patterning of ‘discursive regimes’ and ‘relations’ in society as follows:

„.(a) intra-discursive dependencies (between the objects, operations and concepts of a single formation); (b) inter-discursive dependencies (between different discursive formations, such as the correlations which I studied in The Order of Things between natural history, economics, grammar and the theory ofrepresentation); (c) extra-discursive dependencies between discursive transformations and transformations outside of discourse (e. g. between medical discourse and a whole play of economic, political and social change).

(Foucault 1991:58)

The difficulty with this definition of discourse and ‘discursive regimes’ is how exactly to describe the relationship between discourse and the human subject. It is a problem which Foucault consistently refuses to address in his work. He describes discourse as ‘a space of differentiated subject positions and subject functions’ (ibid.) and, as a result, Foucault claims, it is identifiable without reference to subjective experience or intentionality. As Hartsock (1990:167) argues, ‘this has the effect of “generating a language” where things move, rather than people’.

Perhaps the most thoroughgoing and engaging critique of the relationship between discourse and the ‘extra-discursive’ (or what, if anything, exists outside ‘discursive regimes’) is located in Maureen Cain’s article ‘Foucault, Feminism and Feeling: What Foucault Can and Cannot Contribute to Feminist Epistemology’ (1993). Cain explores Foucault’s work by considering whether it is possible for relationships to exist which are not wholly within discourses. She comes to the important conclusion that it is no longer possible to leave discourse analysis out of feminist research, nor can feminists leave relationships out of discourse analysis. She sees Foucault as proposing a radical methodology which allows discursive powers and processes to be made available as never before.

Cain (1993) sets out to establish where Foucault stood on the question of the ‘ontological primacy of discourse’, that is, on the question of whether or not only those relationships exist which are somehow or other known in discourse. She argues that the relationship between discourse and the ‘extra-discursive’ is an uneasy and changing relationship. Cain describes the ‘extra-discursive’ as a conception of social reality or existence which cannot be grasped in the analysis of discourse; it is literally what exists outside discourse.

Foucault’s major methodological work, and the one in which he addresses the relationship between discourse and the extra-discursive, is The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972). Foucault is primarily concerned with the internal relations of discourse, that is, he wants, as Cain (1993:76) argues, to explore the internal relationships between the ‘elements’, such as subjects, objects, relationships, etc., which make any specific discourse what it is. As Cain maintains,

Foucault’s aim is to make these relations more visible through the process of deconstruction. Thus, from this perspective a discourse must be understood in terms of the operation of its elements, that is, in terms of the rules governing the relations between its constituent elements.

(Cain 1993:76)

Cain argues that, given this position, a discourse cannot be explained in terms of anything except its own internal relationships:

it is easy to see how this can be interpreted as proposing a radical autonomy for discourse.. .His alternative method of‘mapping’ as displayed in ‘The Archaeology’ leaves his work open to the interpretation that discourses are not only self­generating but also generative of all relationships of which they speak.

(Cain 1993:77-78)

Cain goes on to locate ‘discourse’ within what she sees as Foucault’s broader purpose. She prefers to interpret Foucault as proposing a ‘radical methodology’; one which enables discursive processes and powers to be made more apparent.

In The Archaeology /Knowledge (1972), Foucault distinguishes between discursive relations and primary and secondary relations as outlined in the following passage:

‘primary’ relations., independently of all discourse or all objects of discourse, may be described between institutions, techniques, social forms, etc. After all, we know very well that relations existed between the bourgeois family and the functioning of judicial authorities and categories in the nineteenth century. They cannot always be superimposed upon the relations that go to form objects: the relations of dependence that may be assigned to this primary level are not necessarily expressed in the formation of relations that makes discursive objects possible. But we must also distinguish the secondary relations that are formulated in discourse itself: what, for example, the psychiatrists of the nineteenth century could say about the relations between the family and criminality does not reproduce, as we know, the interplay of real dependencies; but neither does it reproduce the interplay of relations that make possible and sustain the objects of psychiatric discourse. Thus a space unfolds articulated with possible discourses: a system of real or primary relations, a system of reflexive or secondary relations, and a system of relations that might properly be called discursive. The problem is to reveal the specificity of these discursive relations, and their interplay with the other two kinds.

(Foucault 1972:46)

From this passage it can be seen that Foucault does not understand primary relations as necessarily expressed in discursive relations at all, and it is clear, in recognising an organising role for discourse, that he does not imply that other relations do not exist. Foucault (1972:46) in fact argues that his enterprise, or the problem he faces, is to specify the nature of these discursive relations and the interaction between the two. As Cain elegantly notes, the autonomy or uncaused character of discursive relations does not mean that their articulations with primary and secondary relations cannot be charted. However, this is a largely uncharted area for Foucault and, as Cain (1993) elaborates, these points of intersection or articulation between the discursive and the extra-discursive can be seen as sites of resistance, power, struggle and political action. It is here that feminists can become pro-active in taking the Foucauldian debate forward and exploring and charting the ‘moments of articulation’ (Cain 1993:79) and nature of resistance. However, in discussing the nature of resisting discourses, or as Foucault called them ‘reverse discourses’, Soper (1993:34) warns that it is important not to be seduced by the dialectic of ‘reverse discourses’ into forgetting that the implications for groups experiencing oppression cannot be determined through an analysis of competing discourses.

The significance of the Foucauldian analysis of the relationship between discourse and the extra-discursive for feminists is an interesting one as outlined by Cain (1993). She argues that the nature of discursive relations, as described in Foucault, does not preclude the possibility of relationships of which ‘no discourse speaks’. Cain is here concerned with the ‘repressed knowledges’, i. e. the voices of those silenced by, or excluded from, dominant discourses. Cain’s analysis of the nature of the discursive and the extra-discursive raises a number of opportunities, spaces or ‘sites of resistance’ for feminists in the area of theory, methodology and epistemology.