Nancy Fraser: “Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions”


In this article Nancy Fraser argues that Foucault’s “vacillates between two equally inadequate stances” (33). On one hand, Foucault defines power as all pervasive and capillary; a conception that forbids any sort of non-power laden, objective point from which to condemn objectionable practices. And, on the other hand, Fraser sees his work as betraying “the conviction that modern societies are utterly without redeeming features” (33). Which is to say, Fraser sees Foucault as holding both that we cannot provide foundations for criticizing modern society and that we must criticize it. Thus on this reading, we ought to do something that we are incapable of doing. She discusses this apparent contradiction through Foucault’s relation to normativity and justification.

She notes that Foucault seems to ‘bracket’ the question of epistemic justification; he never asks the question “Which of these knowledge claims is justified? Who here is ‘correct’ or which of these beliefs is warranted?” Rather Foucault brackets or suspends the discussion of these questions. This bracketing itself is not as important, for Fraser, as the methodological reasons that may be behind it. She proposes three reasons why Foucault might ‘bracket’ these questions.

First, Foucault’s work may be seen as an entirely value neutral, politically disengaged account of modern power. This suggestion she doubts almost immediately, given what she calls the “obviously politically engaged character of his writing” (18). This sort of position would also seem incoherent given the seemingly all-pervasive political power structures Foucault himself describes. The idea that Foucault might himself be able to provide an objective, neutral critique would fly in the face of the entirety of his own work (and his numerous discussions of the ‘role’ of the intellectual).

The second reading of Foucault’s ‘bracketing’ involves seeing Foucault as having “educed some other normative framework as an alternative to the suspended one” (18). Which is to say that, in place of the liberal normative framework with its questions of legitimacy and illegitimacy based on the notions of ‘rights’ and ‘rationality,’ Foucault has moved to a new framework with entirely different questions and foundations. She asks: “Could the language of domination, subjugation, struggle, and resistance be interpreted as the skeleton of some alternative framework?” (29). She is, however, dubious of the plausibility of such an argument. She “finds no clues in Foucault’s writings as to what his alternative norms might be (she sees) no hints as to how concretely to interpret ‘domination’, ‘subjugation’, ‘subjection’, and so forth in some completely new “postliberal” fashion” (29).

This leads us to the third possible reading of Foucault’s “bracketing.” This interpretation holds that Foucault brackets normativity because he has “found a way to do politically engaged critique without the use of any normative framework” (18). On this reading Foucault avoids the question of normativity because he has found an entirely different way to critique political questions that is outside of normativity completely. Fraser notes that Foucault himself endorsed this reading of his work. She states that:

“He claims he has approached power strategically and militarily, not normatively. He says he has substituted the perspective of war, with its contrast between struggle and submission, for that of right, with its contrast between legitimacy and illegitimacy. In this interpretation, Foucault’s use of the terms ‘domination’, ‘subjugation’, and ‘subjection’ would be normatively neutral: these terms would simply be descriptive of the strategic alignments and modes of operation of the various opposing forces in the modern world” (28).
Fraser argues that this sort of shift toward military metaphors still demands the ability to (justifiably) distinguish between opposing sides. She believes that strategic military analyses must be “capable of specifying who is dominating or subjugating whom and who is resisting or submitting to whom.” (29). Yet, Foucault’s analyses do not provide us with any definitive ground from which we can sort out the oppressed from the oppressor. In effect, the shift from the liberal normative framework to this military framework cannot provide us with any ground to justify “anyone’s preference for, or commitment to, one side as opposed to the other” (29). So, Fraser argues, these three possible readings of Foucault fail to provide us with the necessary tools to normatively confront political domination. Her
“point is not simply that Foucault contradicts himself. Rather, it is that he does so in part because he misunderstands, at least when it comes to his own situation, the way that norms function in social description. He assumes that he can purge all traces of liberalism from his account of modern power simply by forswearing explicit reference to the tip-of-the-iceberg notions of legitimacy and illegitimacy. He assumes, in other words, that these norms can be neatly isolated and excised from the larger cultural and linguistic matrix in which they are situated.” (30).
This sort of argument is, I think, an extremely difficult one to respond to on Foucault’s part. How is it that Foucault can show us the genealogical ‘origins’ of a certain form of political or epistemic justification without himself invoking some kind of justifying practice? Or, put in simpler terms, how is it that Foucault extricates himself from the modern predicament of the subject/object dichotomy? This seems to me to be precisely the question we have been trying to answer all year long. If we could just situate Foucault as a ‘radical cultural relativist’ (as Fraser mentions a few times) there would be no real problem, and Foucault’s discourse would be subject to precisely the same critiques that relativism is. Conversely, if we could just situate Foucault as some kind of essentialist, as someone who thinks they are getting at the precise and absolute truth of history, we could subject him to the very critiques that he levels against modern institutions. Given his ‘normative confusions’ it appears that Foucault inadvertently remains within the subject/object problem of modernity by ignoring it or at least by attempting to evade it.

The problem, however, is that Foucault doesn’t really appear to be a relativist or an objectivist, at least in such simplistic senses of those terms. The difficulty lies in the fact that Foucault appears to dismantle the very opposition between subject and object in his genealogical studies.

Fraser hints at a more direct, less problematic, solution to this dilemma, one that lies in the direction of Jurgen Habermas’ thought. Unlike Foucault, Habermas provides us with a conception of “rationality and rationalization (that has) a two-sided normative character…” (25). For Habermas

“rationalization involves a contrast between instrumentalization—which is a one-sided, partial, and insufficient rationalization—and a fuller practical, political rationality. It therefore carries with it a normative standard for critiquing modern societies. Foucault’s discussion of political rationality in the Tanner Lectures, on the other hand, contains no such contrast and no positive normative pole. Rationality for him is either a neutral phenomenon or (more often) an instrument of domination tout court” (25).
Thus, Fraser thinks that Habermas is able to critique modernity because he has a solid foundation in a practical political rationalization that does not rely on a particular perspective but is rather situated within a community of rational citizens. His claims are legitimated (or at least legitimizable) within the confines of a normative, political rationality. Foucault, on the other hand, is completely afloat in a sea of relativism for Fraser, because for him rationality is either dominating or completely neutral: there is nothing for a politically engaged critique of dominance to hold onto. I am not terribly familiar with Habermas’ work so I will ‘bracket’ my own judgment on his success or failure in overcoming this problem. I would, however, like to tentatively defend Foucault’s genealogies against Fraser’s attack.

Tentative (Brief) Counter-Argument

I think Foucault’s work has to be seen as resisting within a space where resistance is itself determined by that which it resists. It seems to me that his discourse, while encouraging resistance, necessarily illustrates how that resistance itself is a form of domination.

Fraser worries about the normative aspect of Foucault’s work. I think that the characterization of that work as a ‘toolbox’ for resistance evades that worry. Instead of providing us with an absolute, all-encompassing, ‘true’ description of how power works, Foucault wants to give us useful fictions that may, or may not, be taken up by various resistance groups. Rather than providing, for instance, prison reform groups with an objective justification for their own existence, I think Foucault’s work already assumes that such resistance exists. Importantly, I think he would see the project of ‘justification’ as a move within a power structure: a move that may, or may not be valuable for a resistance group. So, rather than simply providing resistance groups with justifications that they, presumably, could provide themselves, Foucault aims only to give them tools with which to further their own work. This, to me, seems to be his great difference from Sartre (and intellectuals of that sort). Rather than the intellectual who speaks for a group and provides foundations for critically engaging dominators, Foucault makes a move toward the specific intellectual, one who creates (or widens) the space for resistance to speak for itself. That is, Foucault’s work has political implications that do not, necessarily, require strict philosophical justification. It is less ‘normatively confused ‘, I think, than it is strategically relativistic. Rather than seeing his own rational discourse as necessarily corrupted by its historical and relative constitution, I think the realization of that contingency is an important part of Foucault’s discursive force. As he himself notes, he writes only ‘fictions’. That is: rather than a sort of hegemonic critique, one that definitively points out what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, Foucault wants to move away from solidity in favor of a sort of shifting critique, one that is harder to pin down.

So, I would argue that Foucault’s critique avoids the solidity of justification and normativity precisely because those types of ‘foundation’ are most likely to be subsumed. Foundational critiques are most likely to be folded back into the dominant system from which they were born. Foucauldian analyses, on the other hand, seem to provide those who resist with the sort of tools that allow them to avoid these traps more deftly. In particular, I think his description of power as productive allows resistance groups to understand how they themselves might be implicated in power relations and even their own domination. Indeed, the productivity of power seems to me to be a structural feature of Foucault’s argument that necessarily forces the reader to call into question Foucault’s own situation. So rather than effacing his own critique, Foucault provides an apparatus that is self-questioning, self-critiquing and thus, one that avoids the contradictions that Fraser would like to ascribe to it.


  • Nancy Fraser, “Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions,” pp.17-34 in Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1989).