Power when typically thought of, is thought and related to with punishment. Power is typically thought to be held only by a select few and is associated by the people who hold it. What come to mind when I think of power, for instance, are political and military leaders. Some of these political leaders include people such as Napoleon, Washington, King Arthur and even Hitler. My understanding of power stems from long implemented History classes and Hollywood depicting these men to be the ones who hold the “power”. But is this really the only/absolute form of power? The French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault believed that power was a means for production, a means to berth life, and eventually means to acquire knowledge to achieve discourse. Foucault states that bio-power is, “the power to foster or disallow life…the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life” (Foucault 1976).This theory Michel Foucault presents is called bio-power and is radically different then the one I was taught growing up.
Sovereign power (indirect/direct) is the one most of my generation grew up knowing. Foucault states that sovereign power is, “the power of life and death…[the exerciser has the] right of life only by exercising his right to kill” or not to (Foucault 1976). This notion exemplifies that sovereign power is in some way visible and related to monarchies, dictatorships, and other ancient form of government. For example in a monarchy you have a king, this king has sovereign power over his people and state. This “regulatory” power is very direct because the power has a clear enforcer (the king) and the clear consequences of life or death. This power could also be indirect by nearly showing and letting others know death is out there. In my first video clip (refer to 1a), from Alice and Wonderland, it shows the queen of wonderland exercising her absolute, direct sovereign force. In this clip she is dissatisfied because someone stole her tarts. So like any mythical and sometimes historical evil queen/king, she decided to behead the frog servant. Foucault would say that the way she deals with this situation, by cutting the frogs head off is a very direct and sovereign way to exercise power. An example of indirect power, where the “people” are exposed to death rather than it being their punishment, is found in this Braveheart movie clip. In the very begging we see the leader of the English army command his Calvary to fully exercise his indirect sovereign power. Both of these powers, direct and indirect, are deductive and show destruction rather than what Foucault would say the true nature of power should be.
Foucault believed that power was not meant to be understood or be exercised in a destructive way but rather by productive means. Bio-power is the ideal use and nature of power. Bio-power is productive and promotes life, opposed to sovereign powers destructive nature. An example I came up with is imagining the perfect utopia. While a utopia would be an extreme way of looking at bio-power, it follows easily. If everyone did his or her part, policed themselves, and consciously choose to do so we would have an utopia. This utopia would foster life and have the ability to control all of humanity. This idea that people could self police and be easily managed/controlled is the way one could look at bio-power being exercised. This disciplinary use of power is very prominent in the society we live in today. It is prominent because we can see it, small as it may be, everyday. Everyday we see people following laws without there being an enforcer, we see power mechanisms being internalized. This form or power is instrumental in population control and keeping peace.
The use and understanding of power can greatly influence the way of life we live in. For a more “North Korean” way of life one might be comfortable accepting sovereign power to govern them. But for an, ideal anyway, “American” way of life one might see bio-power as an acceptable force. It is important to distinguish these two because I, like Foucault, believe that power can be used for the greater good of humanity. Power can be used to unify and help foster life. With bio-power we would be able to be as close as possible to a realistic world peace. I believe this because with bio-power beliefs come disciplinary actions. After the notion of bio-power is taught and accepted people would be compelled to foster life, be self-policing, and then could easily be supervised or controlled if need be.
Foucault, Michel. 1976. The History of Sexuality. New York: A Division of Random
Disney UK. (2010, February 23). Alice in Wonderland [Video File] Retrieved from
EpicWarScenes. (2011, March 5). Braveheart [Video File] Retreived from
Alice in Wonderland