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Foucault's ethic of power: Subjects, politics and the critical attitude


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Healy, FB 2013 , 'Foucault's ethic of power: Subjects, politics and the critical attitude', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Michel Foucault’s later work contains the foundations of an ‘ethic of power.’ This ethic, I suggest, provides an alternative approach to the question of what it means to ‘resist’ power.
‘Relations of power’ for Foucault describes an inalienable feature of social interaction. This account continues to cause debate among scholars with diverging views about its critical and political implications. In addressing these concerns I make the point that many of Foucault’s critics assume certain interpretations of terms such as ‘power’ and ‘freedom’ that locate these criticisms in the very traditions Foucault was attempting to overcome. Consequently, their evaluation of Foucault’s critical and political contributions are made from within these same traditions.
Re-reading these concepts in light of his later work on ‘government’ and on ancient ethics requires a renewed approach to understanding a Foucaultian concept of politics. In turn, this requires a re-thinking of the relationship of ethics to politics and the nature of the political field itself. In disassociating political power from the state, Foucault disrupts the usual alignment between the public and political spheres. By arguing that power relations extend throughout society, Foucault posits the political field as co-extensive with networks of power relations. The subject thus emerges as a constitutive element of the political field. In this way, Foucault posits aesthetic practices of self-stylisation firmly in the domain of politics. In this way, the constitution of the subject takes its place as an integral part of Foucault’s idea of politics.
In light of these points, I argue that in understanding what Foucault means by ‘resistance’ we should look to his account of the ‘critical attitude’—the right to qualified refusal of forms of government. This is not to say that resistance to power is limited to this refusal, but that the latter founds resistance to power. As such, an ethic of power would not describe how to exercise power, nor would it determine some exercises of power as ‘good’ and others as ‘bad.’ Rather, it would be an ethic that governs how we constitute ourselves as ethical subjects, in relation to ourselves and in relation to others, following the recognition that we are each subjects of, and subject to, power.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Healy, FB
Keywords: Foucault, ethics, power, politics, critique, subjects, subjectivity
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