Powered by Foucault: New Historicism's Concept of Power

Seminar Paper, 2005

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1. Foucault’s Concept of Power
1.1. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
1.2. Powered by Nietzsche: Michel Foucault

2. New Historicism’s Concept of Power




I don’t want to “improvise”[1] on the metaphor Deleuze used to describe the way he made use of fellow philosophers (though he usually made use of them in quite a gentle manner) to come across with his own ideas. I rather like to think of such theorists as Nietzsche, Foucault, or Greenblatt[2] in a more detached manner as atomic particles that hardly ever meet, but sometimes do, and when they crash make something emerge that may be new and may be not. I’d like to take some of that enthusiastic energy Greenblatt felt when first he met Foucault and heard him lecture[3] and let this paper run on it. I will follow that ‘thread’ of power that in a way puts Nietzsche, Foucault, and Greenblatt in touch in order to figure out whether there is anything new about new historicism’s concept of power as compared to that of Nietzsche and Foucault. In the following a brief outline will be given of how Nietzsche employs power to understand how the cosmos works. Then I shall describe Foucault’s understanding of how power relations condition society, government, discourse, and the way we look at things. Afterwards I shall discuss new historicism’s concept of power, focussing on the consequences this concept of power has for the understanding of the relation between society and works of art and for the interpretation of literary and historical texts. In the end there will be a short outlook on what could be an answer to the question of whether there is anything new about new historicism’s concept of power.

1. Foucault’s Concept of Power

Most commentators on new historicism agree on the fact that Foucault had a major impact on the theory of new historicism in general and on new historicism’s concept of power in particular[4]. Greenblatt and Foucault both worked at Berkeley in the 1970s. So, probably, it was there that two ‘atomic particles’ in the ‘universe’ of cultural studies collided and thus produced a new ‘world’ of literary theory called ‘new historicism’ or ‘the poetics of culture’. But before Greenblatt’s ‘collision’ with Foucault, the latter had already gone through another important encounter: his ‘collision’ with Nietzsche. Not only Payne and Deleuze are aware of the fact that some of Foucault’s theories are of a profound “nietzschéisme”(Deleuze 2004:78). It was by Nietzsche, namely by his mature work, that (not only) Foucault was considerably influenced in his thoughts on power and knowledge. In the following we will discuss a few aspects of power as outlined by Nietzsche in his posthumously published “Der Wille zur Macht” (1906), which can be considered to be some kind of a forerunner to much of Foucault’s and also Greenblatt’s and Montrose’s findings.

1.1. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Nietzsche was among the first to integrate “power” into the concept of a soulless, godless universe of pure physis. To Nietzsche the universe (Welt) is nothing but power (Kraft), or, described more accurately, it is: ”ein Ungeheuer von Kraft, ohne Anfang und Ende.” (Nietzsche 1964: 696). Staying true to his physical, materialist view of things, Nietzsche opposed the hypostization of “power” as well as a too static view of it by conceiving the interactions of powers to be the essential condition for the existence of what he calls: “meine dionysische Welt” (Nietzsche 1964: 697). The world is “power(s)” in motion[5].

This network of contending forces is what Nietzsche calls life[6]. The will to power, i.e., the will to participate in the process of life, is the basic will, the fundamental drive all organisms, cellular micro-organisms as well as social macro-organisms, have in common[7]. This vital will to power is also the necessary prerequisite for the existence of all kinds of change[8]. The will to power has its object in obtaining as much life, i.e. power, as possible. The more life there is, the more pleasure can be enjoyed. The struggle for power is really a struggle for pleasure; it is hedonism[9].

Since every power, i.e., every living organism, tries to obtain maximum pleasure, there is a constant fight going on among them. Every single living being must decide constantly whether it is preferable to fight against or to contain or to withdraw from contending forces (cf. Nietzsche 1964:433, n°. 641). In this constant contest of powers transient dominant powers[10] arise. These dominant forces manage to lead and direct the weaker ones. The rigidity of their dominance depends on their amount of power.[11] Usually living organisms tend to specialize in one form of the will to power. One of these forms is the will to lead others politically.

Various strategies are employed in order to be able to wield as much power as possible. To Nietzsche, obeying as well as giving orders are “Formen des [Macht-] Kampfspiels” (Nietzsche 1964:433). Legislation, as well as such ideals as virtue, ‘freedom and justice for all’, charity, and love are nothing but manifestations of the will to power. They are employed as necessary means to consolidate dominance once it has been acquired, since dominance never remains unchallenged. There are always subversive forces with strong ambitions to achieve hegemony that compete with the dominant will to power. The dominant will to power has two ways to answer their attacks: it can answer subversion either by severe oppression, or by trying to contain (einverleiben) subversive forces, the degree of freedom granted to the subversive forces depending on the amount of power held by the dominant will to power[12]. The subversive forces in this relation are essential for the existence of the dominant will to power. The dominant will to power needs the will to resistance in order to be able to exist[13]. If the dominant will to power does not manage to contain the will to resistance, this, according to Nietzsche, usually results in the establishment of a new centre of organisation of power[14].

There is one way of wielding power that is of particular interest to the field of literary and cultural studies. It is that of interpretation understood as a specific kind of legislation and as a specific way of gaining power over reality. According to Nietzsche, it is one of the essential drives of human beings and one of the essential functions of the will to power to determine the way how things are to be understood and interpreted[15]. In doing so the will to power also determines what is knowledge and what is not. To gain knowledge on someone or something, is to gain dominance on them[16].

1.2. Powered by Nietzsche: Michel Foucault

Like Nietzsche, Foucault did not believe in the existence of power as such, but asserted, that power only existed when put into action. As a result of his pragmatism[17], Foucault was not interested in what power is. He was rather interested in how power is wielded[18]. In order to be able to analyse the nature of power more precisely, Foucault differentiated between power and force. He defined force as “une action sur l’action, sur des actions éventuelles, ou actuelles, futures ou présentes” (Deleuze 2004 : 77). It is « un ensemble des actions sur des actions possibles.” (Deleuze 2004: 77). A force is characterized by its power to affect other forces and by being affected by other forces. The relations between these forces determine some individual points[19]. No force can exist without being in relation with other forces[20]. The therefore necessary force relations “by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power”(Greenblatt 1992: 403). Power is a relation of forces.[21] This power is wielded “á partir de points innombrables”(Deleuze 2004: 77). Foucault, who limits his consideration of power to the analysis of the social body, states that rather than descending vertically down a hierarchical system, power is “a productive network which runs [i.e. circulates] through the entire social body”(Gordon 1980: 119)[22]. The circulation of power occurs by means of exchange. It occurs through the exchange of ideas that are exchanged by discourse, through the exchange of material goods and resources and through the exchange of people that are exchanged by cultural institutions, by legal and illegal means. By denying thus that the wielding of power is a strictly hierarchical, one-way affair, characterized by oppression and prohibition, Foucault distances himself from Althusser’s concept of power as implied in the latter’s concept of ideology, as well as from Freud’s concept of repression (Gordon 1980: 118-119). Power to Foucault is rather a source of pleasure[23], because it is productive. It produces and forms things like knowledge and discourse. It is not exclusively exercised in a repressive, negative way. This explains why it is so appealing to many.

The constant circulation of forces results in constant conflicts between them. Foucault agrees with Nietzsche that power relations imply resistance[24]. History, very much like Nietzsche’s Welt or Leben consists of “relations of power, not relations of meaning. […It] has the form of war rather than that of language”(Gordon 1980: 114)[25]. This “reality of conflict” is essential for the existence of power relations. The existence of power relations, and therefore of power, presupposes the existence of dominance and of resistance. It presupposes the existence of war.

It is not Foucault’s only aim to “look at the workings of Power”(Foucault 1984: 337) in general. He is also interested in the “techniques for “governing” individuals – that is for “guiding their conduct””(Foucault 1984: 337-338). He is concerned with:


[1] Greenblatt on improvisation: “Was etabliert wird unter höchst unterschiedlichen Umständen und mit radikal divergierenden Folgen, ist eine Struktur, über die sich improvisieren lässt, eine Reihe von Mustern, die genügend Elastizität und genügend Raum für Variationen aufweisen, um die meisten Teilnehmer einer Kultur aufzunehmen.“ (Baßler 2001:54)

[2] For reasons of time and space we will limit our considerations of new historicism’s concept of power in this paper to some of the writings of three of new historicism’s major representatives: Stephen Greenblatt, Catherine Gallagher, and Louis Montrose, Greenblatt, as the “progenitor or the new historicism” (Stephens 1992, there are no page numbers given in this script), serving as the prototypical new historicist in this case. This does not imply, however, that I consider dissenting opinions of other new historicists to be non-new historicist.

[3] Greenblatt recounts that first encounter as follows: „A friend of mine said there was this guy visiting from France and that I ought to go to his seminars […] I couldn’t believe it! Each sentence was more magical and beautiful that the last. I kept rushing out and saying to friends: “This guy is amazing.” And they’s ask: “What’s he saying?” And I’d try to explain, but it would sound like I was completely out of my mind.” (Stephens 1992, there are no page numbers given in this text)

[4] Cf.eg.: Nünning 1998: 215, 402; Childers 1995: 207; Baßler 2001: 236, 255. Crew, chairman of the graduate program in English at Berkeley, suggests that Foucault is “the silent partner in Greenblatt’s work”. (cf. Stephens 1992)

[5] „Diese Welt […] als Kraft überall, als Spiel von Kräften und Kraftwellen zugleich.“ (Nietzsche 1964:697).

[6] „Eine Vielheit von Kräften […] heißen wir Leben.“ (Nietzsche 1964: 641).

[7] „Die organischen Funktionen zurückübersetzt in den Grundwillen, den Willen zur Macht.“ (Nietzsche 1964: 658).

[8] „Jener Wille zur Macht, in dem ich den letzten Grund und Charakter aller Veränderung wieder erkenne …“ (Nietzsche 1964: 462). This change may be micro-organic such as the chemical processes inside the cell, or macro-organic and social, as is the case revolutions.

[9] „Helvétius entwickelt uns, dass man nach Macht strebt, um Genüsse zu haben, welche dem Mächtigen zu Gebote stehn: - er versteht dieses Streben nach Macht als Willen zum Genuß! als Hedonismus!“ (Nietzsche 1964:504). Perfect pleasure, according to Nietzsche, consists “ in der Hervorbringung der mächtigsten Individuen, zu deren Werkzeug die größte Menge gemacht wird.” (Nietzsche 1964: 442)

[10] Nietzsche’s „die Stärkeren“.

[11] „Je größer der Drang ist zur Einheit, um so mehr darf man auf Schwäche schließen; je mehr der Drang nach Varietät, Differenz, innerlichem Zerfall, um so mehr Kraft ist da.“ (Nietzsche 1964: 438).

[12] „Je größer der Drang ist zur Einheit, um so mehr darf man auf Schwäche schließen; je mehr der Drang nach Varietät, Differenz, innerlichem Zerfall, um so mehr Kraft ist da.“ (Nietzsche 1964: 438).

[13] „Der Wille zur Macht kann sich nur an Widerständen äußern; er such also nach Dem, was ihm widersteht.“ (Nietzsche 1964: 438).

[14] „Wo ein Wille nicht ausreicht, das gesamte Angeeignete zu organisieren, tritt ein Gegenwille in Kraft, der die Loslösung vornimmt, ein neues Organisationszentrum, nach einem Kampf mit dem ursprünglichen Willen.“ (Nietzsche 1964: 439).

[15] „Unsere Bedürfnisse sind es, die die Welt auslegen; unsere Triebe und deren Für und Wider. Jeder Trieb ist eine Art Herrschsucht, jeder hat seine Perspektive, welche er als Norm allen übrigen Trieben aufzwingen möchte.“ (Nietzsche 1964:337) The power of the right, or most influential, point of view was also very important to Foucault.

[16] “Erkenntnis arbeitet als Werkzeug der Macht […] das Maß der Erkenntnis hängt ab von dem Maß des Willens zur Macht der Art: eine Art ergreift so viel Realität , um über sie Herr zu werden, um sie in Dienst zu nehmen.” (Nietzsche 1964: 336).

[17] “Selon Foucault, tout est pratique;” (Deleuze 2004 :81).

[18] “On ne demande pas <<qu’est-ce que le pouvoir? et d’oú vient-il ? >>, mais : comment s’exerce-t-il ? « (Deleuze 2004: 78).

[19] “des points singuliers”,(Deleuze 2004 : 84).

[20] “La force n’a pas d’autre objet que d’autres forces, pas d’autre être que le rapport. »(Deleuze 2004: 77).

[21] "Le pouvoir est un rapport des forces.”, (Deleuze 2004 : 77).

[22] cf. also: “Il passé par les dominés non moins que par les dominants. » (Deleuze 2004: 78).

[23] cf. Nietzsche’s hedonism.

[24] “Power relations always imply multiple sites not only of power but also of resistance.” (Montrose in: Greenblatt 1992: 403); cf. also: “conceive all problems of power in terms of relations of war.” (Gordon 1980: 123).

[25] Sharing Nietzsche’s dislike for such “Hinterweltler” as Hegel or Plato, Foucault declares that Hegel’s Dialectics and Plato’s dialogues are nothing but “ways of evading the […] reality of conflict […] a way of avoiding its violent, bloody and lethal character” (Gordon 1980: 114-115).

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Powered by Foucault: New Historicism's Concept of Power
University of Cologne  (English Department)
ES II The Wonderful World of Literary Theory
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Karolin Dunschen (Author), 2005, Powered by Foucault: New Historicism's Concept of Power, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/40945


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