A Discussion of Nancy Hartsock's Critique of Michel Foucault

In this writeup I will present what I think is a convincing defense of (my interpretation of) the work of Michel Foucault against a critique provided by Nancy Hartsock in her essay, “Foucault on Power”. For the purpose of brevity, I will limit my discussion to (what I take to be) Hartsock's three most important points. First, Hartsock argues that Foucault ignores “large scale social structures” and ends up homogenizing power, thus making it a useless or empty concept.

Second, she believes that Foucault writes from the position of the dominator, and is thus more likely to ignore problems/domination hierarchies in current power relations that he plays a role in. Third, and finally, I will attempt to deal with another sort of objection that Hartsock levels against Foucault. She believes that the idea of the inescapability of power structures in Foucault’s analyses is both dangerous and unfounded. In rejecting the idea of liberation, Foucault remains within the problematic of the Enlightenment, the very problematic that he is attempting to escape/subvert. He ignores the possible alternatives that more liberatory projects (such as Hartsock’s standpoint feminism )1 present.

After each argument above is presented in more detail, I will illustrate how these objections rely either on an overly simplistic definition of power that cannot legitimately be attributed to Foucault, an illegitimate characterization of Foucault himself or the adoption of a specific political position without philosophical warrant. I will conclude the paper with a recapitulation of Foucault’s position, and an outline of what I take to be its important implications.

To begin with, I will simply present the three most important objections that Hartsock makes to Foucault's analyses of power. First, Hartsock argues that Foucault's account of power is useless because it cannot/does not take into account systematic power relations (the institutional domination of men over women, for instance). This is because Foucault utilizes a conception of power that completely homogenizes itself, thus making the term ‘power’ so broad that it can be applied to anything, everything, and nothing. She states that:

Foucault argues that rather than begin from the center or the top...one should conduct an ascending analysis of power... Foucault's argument for an “ascending analysis” of power could lead us to engage in a version of blaming the victim... Foucault asserts that power must be understood as “capillary,” that it must be analyzed at its extremities. He gives the example of locating power not in sovereignty but in local material institutions...But the image of capillary power is one which points to the conclusion that power is everywhere...Thus, all of social life comes to be a network of power relations--relations which should be analyzed not at the level of large-scale social structures but rather at very local individual levels... The whole thing comes to look very homogenous. Power is everywhere, and so ultimately nowhere (Hartsock 169-170).

Hartsock's argues here that Foucault's from-the-bottom-up ‘capillary’ analysis of power forces him to see power relations everywhere (as entirely ‘homogenous’). Such a conception of power provides us with a poor analytical tool. If we think of power as the result of every sort of social transaction, then our definition of ‘power’ is so weak that it becomes utterly useless. In effect if power is everywhere then it is ultimately nowhere: if everything is power what can power mean?

Second, she argues that because Foucault is in a position of dominance, he has a larger blind spot when analyzing the forms of dominance that he participates in. She uses the term the ‘colonizer who refuses’ (appropriated from Albert Memmi) to describe Foucault. She states that: The colonizer who refuses to become a part of his group (of) fellow citizens faces the difficult political question of who might he be... This lack of certainty and power infuses Foucault's work most profoundly in his methodological texts. He is clearly rejecting any form of totalizing discourse:

Reason, he argues, must be seen as born from chaos, truth as simply an error hardened into unalterable form in the long process of history. He argues for a glance that disperses and shatters the unity of man’s being through which he sought to extend his sovereignty. That is, Foucault appears to endorse a rejection of modernity. Moreover, he has engaged in social activism around prisons. His sympathies are obviously with those over whom power is exercised, and he suggests that many struggles can be seen as linked to the revolutionary working-class movement (Hartsock 165).

We can see here that Hartsock clearly aligns Foucault with ‘the dominated’. An alignment she attempts to annul in a later passage. She goes on to state that:

First, despite his obvious sympathy for those who are subjugated in various ways, he writes from the perspective of the dominator, “the self-proclaimed majority.” Second and related, perhaps in part because power relations are less visible to those who are in position to dominate others, systematically unequal relations of power ultimately vanish from Foucault's account of power--a strange and ironic charge to make against someone who is attempting to illuminate power relations (Hartsock 165).

So Foucault, because he writes from a dominant viewpoint (that of the rather well-off Western, white male intellectual), is less likely to see the hierarchies of dominance that he himself takes place in. Hartsock again seems to have in mind here the traditional domination of women by men and power relations similar in scope. Foucault, as a male who has the ‘upper hand’ so to speak, in this power relation has no interest, or at least less interest than a dominated woman would, in changing the power relations.

Hartsock thinks that Foucault's position taints his work, and that important power relations ‘vanish’ from his work because of it. In other words, “...Foucault's imagination of power is “with” rather than “against” power” (Hartsock 167). This objection is similar in kind to the first: because of Foucault's definition of power and, now, because of his personal position as well, he tends to ignore the sort of power relations that Hartsock believes are important.

The final objection that I will present is somewhat different than the first two in that it deals not with Foucault's faulty analysis of power relations, but with his inability to escape the ‘problematic’ of the Enlightenment. Hartsock believes that Foucault remains within the boundaries of Enlightenment thought, boundaries that he attempts (and fails) to transgress. She takes his belief that “to even imagine another system (of power relations) is to extend our participation in the present system” (Hartsock 167-168) as an acceptance of defeat. Rather than escape the dichotomy of liberation/domination that the Enlightenment proposed, he accepts the fact that liberation is simply another form of domination. For Hartsock, this acceptance is the ruin of Foucault's critique of the Enlightenment, and a sign that he ignores what she sees as plausible renewals of the liberatory project that manage to escape the Enlightenment problematic. She states that:

Despite their apparent congruence with the project I am proposing, I will argue these theories would hinder rather than help its accomplishment. Despite their own desire to avoid universal claims and despite their stated opposition to these claims, some universalist assumptions creep back into their work. Thus, postmodernism, despite its stated efforts to avoid the problems of European modernism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at best manages to criticize these theories without putting anything in their place (Hartsock159).

So, Foucault's work (and, even more generally, the work of ‘postmodernism’) is a hindrance to the liberatory project that Hartsock herself proposes. This is not simply because his work is ‘anti-Enlightenment’ as it seems to be on the surface, but because its failure to escape Enlightenment thought coupled with its denial of the possibility of liberation force it to “reinforce the relations of domination in our society by insisting that those of us who have been marginalized remain at the margins” (Hartsock 168).

Hartsock characterizes Foucault's definition of power as “everywhere and so ultimately nowhere” (Hartsock 170). I think this characterization relies on a single definition of the role of power, whereas Foucault seems to apply different definitions of power for different historical analyses. For example, his definition of the role of power in the doctor/patient relationship of early modern medicine/psychiatry2 is vastly different than the one he uses in reference to the Catholic practice of the confessional.3 It seems to me that Foucault's various definitions of power all seem to indicate a vision of power that is profoundly multi-faceted and historically variable rather than the homogenous sort of power that Hartsock believes Foucault points towards. In “Two Lectures” Foucault describes a number of historical definitions of power. He mentions the `repressive' model of power, which holds that:

Power represses nature, the instincts, a class, individuals. Though one finds this definition of power endlessly repeated in present day discourse, it is not that discourse which invented it--Hegel first spoke of it, then Freud, and later Reich. In any case, it has become almost automatic in the parlance of the times to define power as an organ of repression. So should not the analysis of power be first and foremost an analysis of the mechanisms of repression? (Two Lectures 89-90).

I think the rhetorical question that Foucault poses from the point of view of the repression model of power (should we not analyze mechanisms of repression in our analysis of power?) is precisely one that Hartsock would answer emphatically, “Yes!”. But, for Foucault (and myself) this answer ignores the fact that such a static, one-way definition of power is not entirely useful when it comes to certain types of power relations. Foucault goes on to state that:

The notion of repression is quite inadequate for capturing what is precisely the productive aspect of power. In defining the effects of power as repression one adopts a purely juridical conception of such power; one identifies power with a law which says no; power is taken above all as carrying the force of a prohibition. Now I believe that this is a wholly negative, narrow, skeletal conception of power, one which has been curiously widespread. If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but to say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it? What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn't only weigh on us a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression. (Truth and Power 60-62).

So, though Foucault describes a method of analyzing power that relies on the repressive model (one which takes into account the sort of large scale social structures and systematically unequal relations of power that Hartsock is worried he ignores) he goes on to describe the limitations of such an analysis. If we are to analyze power always and simply based on the model of repression, says Foucault, we are ultimately simplifying power relations and ignoring what he calls the “productive” aspect of power. Instead of accepting just this simplified form of analysis, Foucault proposes a further definition of power, one that he hopes encompasses this productive aspect of power. Rather than analyzing the large effects of power, Foucault was interested in analyzing power's exercise. He writes that:

The way power was exercised--concretely and in detail--with its specificity, its techniques and tactics, was something that no one attempted to ascertain; they contented themselves with denouncing it (power) in a polemical and global fashion as it existed among the “others,” in the adversary camp. Where Soviet socialist power was in question, its opponents called it totalitarianism; power in Western capitalism was denounced by the Marxists as class domination; but the mechanics of power in themselves were never analyzed... To put it very simply, psychiatric internment, the mental normalization of individuals, and penal institutions have no doubt a fairly limited importance if one is only looking for their economic significance... (Truth and Power 57-58).

This sort of analysis he gestures at here (one that he puts into practice in his historical works) takes into account the smallest social processes of power, the relations that construct individual subjects, the relations between those subjects. For Foucault, it is these sorts of micro-processes that accumulate to form the larger social structures that Hartsock is interested in. Foucault doesn't ‘ignore’ these structures, but analyzes them, reconstructs them from their very basic constituents. Thus, we not only get a picture of these large structures, but we have a further insight into aspects of power that we had previously ignored when using just the repression model of power. So, rather than having a homogenizing effect, it seems that Foucault's definition(s) of ‘power’ allow us to analyze power relations in a wider variety of contexts and using various methods.

Hartsock’s next objection seems questionable to me right from the start. Hartsock defines Foucault (quizzically) as ‘the colonizer who refuses’, which means, essentially, that he is one of the dominant that feels somehow separate from his fellow dominators, and refuses to join in their domination. I think this characterization is unsupportable. The trouble I see is situating exactly what makes Foucault count as ‘dominant’ and Hartsock as ‘dominated’ (colonizer and colonized, to use her terms). I think Hartsock's somewhat polemical anecdote is helpful here:

I am reminded of a joke told about... the Lone Ranger and Tonto, “his faithful Indian companion” (and subordinate). As the story goes, the two are chased and then surrounded by hostile Indians. As he comes to recognize their danger, the Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and asks, “What do we do now?” To which Tonto replies, “What do you mean, ‘we,’ white boy?” (Hartsock 166).

Hartsock neatly allies Foucault here with the Lone Ranger, thus making him out to be some sort of Western, male colonizing force, and subordinate (gender, race, class) groups into his (intellectual) colonies. She supports this claim by stating that “Foucault persuades me that Foucault's world is not my world but is instead a world in which I feel profoundly alien” (Hartsock 166) and that “Foucault's is a world in which things move rather than people, a world in which subjects become obliterated or, rather, recreated as passive subjects” (Hartsock 167). Granted that “Foucault's world” may not be her world, does this necessarily entail that Foucault is some sort of dominant force?

I hardly think so. If we keep in mind Foucault's personal life (as she seems to indicate we should) then we are more than likely to align Foucault with the dominated side of her nice two term equation. Regardless, the simple fact that Foucault's ‘world’ does not resemble her own does not mean that his is a colonizer's view, it simply means that they have differing opinions about the role of power, and the “creation” of the subject.

I shall now discuss Hartsock's final objection, that Foucault fails to provide us with an escape from the Enlightenment, and ignores the sort of alternatives that would allow such an escape (i.e.: her own theory of power). I think that this objection turns on a difference in definition about what power is and how it functions. Hartsock uses the fundamentally repressive model for describing power, while Foucault (as we have seen) rejects such a model as too simplistic, too facile, to fully describe power relations and the ‘productive’ aspects of power. The idea that we could 'escape' power to some sort of liberatory utopia is, given Foucault's definition(s) of power, impossible. To envision a world where power is no more is to envision a world devoid of social relations. As such, I think if we accept Foucault’s multi-faceted definition of power (which I attempt to give reasons for doing above) then we must also accept that Foucault does escape the ‘Enlightenment’, by “criticizing it without putting anything in its place” (Hartsock159). For Hartsock, such an ‘empty’ theoretical undertaking is not valuable simply because it fails to provide us with a new or liberatory theory with which to somehow get at, or outside of dominating power structures.

I am convinced that this ‘failure’ is precisely the novelty of Foucault’s thought, precisely that which allows him to ‘escape’ the theoretical umbrella of the Enlightenment. Rather than simply providing us with another example of an ‘objectivist’ or ‘relativist’ theory (the epistemological options left open by the Enlightenment) Foucault succeeds in describing the historical/’meta-epistemic’ processes that have created these seemingly fundamental categories. His ‘failure’ to supply us with a political tool for escaping power relations is a consequence of his successful description of those power relations, and the impossibility of escaping them. If we are to see Foucault’s project as a failure, we must accept the possibility of escaping power structures.

But, if we accept the defense of Foucault’s definition of ‘power’ and power relations (as I hope we do) then the liberatory impulse is seen as one more power relation, neither ‘better’ nor ‘worse’ than the next: merely different. Thus, in describing the Enlightenment as one more epistemic regime that we can escape only to fall into another, Foucault ‘escapes’ the Enlightenment and Hartsock’s proposed escape from the Enlightenment by allowing us to see them as radically historicized epistemic, social, political processes. Such an ‘escape’ is not really an escape, but the admission that any escape is an escape into a different epistemic cage.


  • 1. For Hartsock’s own position, see Hartsock (1983).
  • 2. Though he is less explicit in his discussion of ‘power’ in Madness and Civilization, see pp. 159-198 for an example of Foucault’s various historical applications of ‘power’.
  • 3. See, for instance pp.61-62, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1.

  • Works Cited

    • Nancy Hartsock, “Foucault on Power” pp. 157-172 in Feminism and Postmodernism (New York, Routledge, 1990).

    • Nancy Hartsock, “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism” pp. 283-310 in Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology and Philosophy of Science, edited by Sandra Harding and Merrill Hintikka (Dordrecht, Reidel Publishing, 1983).

    • Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, translated by Richard Howard (New York, Vintage Books, 1965).

    • Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power” pp. 51-75 in The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow (New York, Pantheon, 1984).

    • Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures” pp. 78-108 in Power/Knowledge, edited by Colin Gordon (New York, Pantheon, 1980).

    • Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, translated by Robert Hurley (New York, Vintage Books, 1978).

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