Foucault’s primary concern in a great deal of his work has not been power as such, but the development of an analytical approach to the subject. In ‘The Subject and Power’ (1982), he begins by stating that the goal of his work has not been to analyse ‘the phenomena of power, but rather to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects’ (Foucault 1982:208). A key feature of the Foucauldian analysis of power is that a challenge to power does not come from the outside but from calling into question ‘the mechanisms of the constitution of subjectivity’ (Foucault 1982:216-217).
Foucault proposed that ‘subjects’ are created in and through discourses and discursive practices. Hekman (1990:68) argues that he developed what has been characterised as ‘the most sustained critique of the notion of the subject’. The ‘subject’ that Foucault was intent on deconstructing was the subject or ‘self7 of the Enlightenment. Grimshaw (1993) comments on Foucault’s opposition to the
Enlightenment conception of ‘man’ as an autonomous self-determining human subject and explains his conception of the ‘self as an historical product created by discourses. Foucault, in ‘Truth and Power’ (1980), clearly situates the subject within a discursive framework:
I don’t believe the problem can be solved by historicising the subject as posited by the phenomenologists, fabricating a subject that evolves through the course of history. One has to dispense with the constituent subject, to get rid of the subject itself, that’s to say to arrive at an analysis which can account for the constitution of the subject within a historical framework. And this is what I would call genealogy, that is, a form of history which can account for the constitution of knowledges, discourses, domains of objects, etc., without having to make reference to a subject which is either transcendental in relation to the field of events or runs in its empty sameness throughout the course of history.
Feminists, argues Grimshaw, can find his approach useful in analysing the extent to which women are constructed as subjects in discourses and so in power relationships. She notes that, while some feminists have found Foucault’s deconstruction of subjectivity useful, others have suggested that there are dangers and gaps in Foucault’s analysis of power and subjectivity.
The concept of power in Foucault as both productive and pluralistic can be seen as supportive of different forms of power, while at the same time as producing sites of resistance, struggle and change. The concept of ‘resistance’ is, as Ramazanoglu (1993) notes, part of Foucault’s definition of power since he defines all power as producing resistance. Resistance to power, argues Ramazanoglu, can take the form of new discourses producing ‘new truths’. Ramazanoglu goes on to note that these may be ‘counter discourses’ which oppose dominant truths or ‘reverse discourses’. Both have considerable significance in their application for different aspects or dimensions of feminism. Counter discourses can be identified in feminist epistemologies and practices which challenge dominant patriarchal discourses in terms of knowledge, practices and procedures. Challenges to dominant patriarchal discourses of sexuality as heterosexist and phallocentric come from lesbian feminists, and Foucault himself recognised homosexuality as a ‘reverse discourse’.
Some feminists, however, have challenged the relationship between power and resistance in Foucault. Grimshaw (1993:54) asks whether Foucault can adequately theorise resistance, for if the subject is constituted within discourse and by relations of power, then what opportunity can there be for resistance? As she notes, if the norms of femininity are simply imposed, where does the opportunity for resistance come from? Foucault, aware of these criticisms, attempted to deal with the questions in his later work, maintaining that power and resistance go together and that there is never power without resistance.
This solution has not satisfied many feminists, who argue that Foucault ‘dissolves the agency of the human subject and replaces it with a passive conception’ (Ransom 1993:134). Feminists adopting this view see Foucault’s work as problematic in identifying the production of subject positions within discourses and, as a result, in being unable to account for human experience and consciousness as actively involved in changing the nature of discursive regimes. Other feminists, more sympathetic to elements of Foucault’s work (Weedon 1987; Fraser 1989; Hekman 1990), have challenged this critique. Weedon maintains that, while the subject is constituted by discourse, she still exists ‘as a thinking, feeling and social subject and agent capable of resistance and innovations produced out of the clash between contradictory subject positions and practices’ (1987:125). From Weedon’s standpoint, Foucault does not undermine women’s potential for resistance and agency but sees, as Ransom (1993:134) comments, ‘subjectivity as contested within discourse’.
Hekman (1990:73) maintains that ‘the constituted subject is a subject that resists’ in Foucault’s work, and that those who argue that Foucault’s concept of subjectivity disempowers women can themselves be seen to be operating within a humanistic framework of subjectivity. As Hekman goes on to note, Foucault is not attacking nor attempting to undermine the agency of the subject, but challenging the liberal essentialist conception of the subject which lies at the centre of humanist thought. Hekman (1990:72) argues that Foucault’s view of the discursive location of subject positions and subject functions ‘serves as an important corrective to the tendency among some feminists to define the essentially female’. Thus, the constitution of subjectivity within social and historical discourses does not limit women’s agency. As Ransom (1993:135) notes, it is precisely our ‘embeddedness in discursive practice’ that empowers political action.