Notes on: Intellectuals and power: a conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, in Bouchard D (Ed) (1972?) Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: selected essays and interviews by Michel Foucault.[posted on reddit by Joseph Kay 2006)

Dave Harris

MF. Relations between desire power and interests are complex. It's not always possible for those with vested interests to wield power. Those who do wield power do not necessarily have particular interests. Any desire for power involves a relation between power and interest. Sometimes the masses might indeed desire that particular people assume power who then act against their interests. The whole connections have received little attention. By examining current struggles and the various local and discontinuous theories of them, it might help future discoveries about power.

GD: There might be a new relationship between theory and practice. Practice used to be thought of as an application of theory or a consequence, sometimes as an inspiration for theory. The relation was seen as totalized, but now they seem more partial and fragmentary. Theories are always local and related to limited fields, but any applications are in another sphere. It is not just a matter of resemblance. Theory in its proper domain encounters various obstacles and blockages which will require another type of discourse as a relay if it is to extend from that domain. Practice can be seen as relays between theoretical points, and theory as a relay between different practices. Practice also helps theory break through walls like the one MF encountered when he began to analyse confinement and the asylum. It became necessary for the confined individuals to speak for themselves — this is a relay. The prisoner group ensued. This is not just a matter of applying theories to practice, nor just for reforming the prison. Instead, the point was to connect up or relay a 'multiplicity of parts that are both theoretical and practical' (no page numbers). Theorising intellectual is not just a subject, a 'representative consciousness', representing groups who act and struggle. It is a multiplicity who speaks and acts, even inside a person — 'all of us are groupuscules'. 'Representation no longer exists': there is instead 'action – theoretical action and practical action' as a series of relays and networks.

MF The traditional intellectual was involved politically as an intellectual in bourgeois society and within its ideology, but also as an exponent of a discourse revealing a particular truth, such as 'political relationships where they were unsuspected'. These two forms were of a different order, not necessarily exclusive. Some intellectuals were outcasts as a result, and others were socialists or were fused with socialists, say after the Commune. Usually, rejection and persecution followed a moment where the facts themselves are incontrovertible, but could not be said. Intellectuals spoke the truth in the name of those who were forbidden to speak it to those who had yet to see — 'he was conscience, consciousness, and eloquence'. More recently, intellectuals discovered that the masses didn't need them any longer, that they already know perfectly well 'without illusion', sometimes better than intellectuals themselves. However, this discourse is also blocked and invalidated by 'a system of power', which does not just do censorship but rather which 'penetrates an entire societal network'. Intellectuals can become agents of the system of power, especially if they claim to be specialists in consciousness and discourse. The role of the intellectual no longer places him outside of the collectivity in order to express its truth, but rather to struggle against forms of power that attempt to incorporate him in developing things like knowledge and truth.

In this sense, theory just is practice, but local and regional, not total. It is a struggle against power not to awaken consciousness among the masses, who are already well aware that consciousness is a form of knowledge and if it is a basis of subjectivity, it 'is a prerogative of the bourgeoisie'. This attempt to undermine and grasp power is an activity alongside those who struggle. 'A "theory" is the regional system of this struggle' [romantic bollocks]

GD. [And now the famous bit] 'Theory is exactly like a box of tools. It has nothing to do with the signifier. It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it, beginning with the theoretician himself (who then ceases to be a theoretician), then the theory is worthless or the moment is inappropriate'. We construct new theories rather than revise old ones. Proust, often regarded as a pure intellectual said that we should treat his book as a pair of glasses directed to the outside 'if they don't suit you, find another pair'. People have to find their own instrument, an 'investment for combat'. Theories do not totalize but multiply. Power tries to totalize, so theory is naturally opposed to power. Theories get enmeshed, and when they do, they cease to have any practical importance 'unless it can erupt in a totally different area'. This is like social reform, where reformers claim to speak for others. They only double repression. When complaints and demands are expressed directly, we have revolutionary action challenging the totality of power and hierarchy: 'this is surely evident in prisons' [apparently, militant prisoners were able to oppose reform and were presumably crushed]. 'If the protests of children were heard in kindergarten, if their questions were attended to, it would be enough to explode the entire educational system' [more romantic bollocks]. The inability to show any tolerance makes our social system fragile: it needs global repression. MF began all this with this insistence that speaking for others was and dignified. We already had a critique of representation, but now we control the consequences — 'only those directly concerned can speak in a practical way on their own behalf'.

MF When prisoners did begin to speak, they developed a theory of prisons in the whole penal system. This was a counter discourse, and discourse against power, not just a mere theory about delinquency. Prisons offer local and marginal problems, although they seem to disturb everybody and are the subject of general interest. Once the inmates offered a discourse, it was surprisingly easy to understand them. Perhaps this is because the penal system is the most obvious kind of power — it is still a place of extreme punishments, the cynical exercise of power, 'in the most archaic, puerile, infantile manner' [punishment diet]. Prison shows us naked power justified as moral force, and power extends the tiniest details.

GD Children are also treated like prisoners, 'submitted to an infantilisation which is alien to them', so schools resemble prisons and so do factories — you need three tickets to go to the bathroom in a Renault plant! Jeremy Bentham's text on prison reforms developed prison as a model, to allow passage from school to factory and vice versa. This is a classic example of 'reformed representation'. When people begin to speak and act on their own behalf, they do not argue about representations or insist on better ones — for example, there is no point in opposing some popular justice against justice.

MF There is widespread hatred of the judicial system not just based on the idea of a better form of justice. The struggle is against power not against injustice. Whenever there has been rioting or revolt, the judicial system has been targeted as much as finance or the army rather forms. We might suggest that the popular courts in the Revolution were a means for the lower-middle-class to grab the initiative in the struggle against the judicial system. Their idea was a court system based on equitable justice, clearly connected to 'the bourgeois ideology of justice'.

GD Power tries to develop a total or global vision, and all local forms of repression, like racism, or repression in factories or education can be totalized. We saw this in the reaction to May 68 but it underpins the preparation for the near future too — French capitalism depends on a margin of unemployment, abandoning the usual 'liberal and paternal mask' promising full employment. Restrictions on immigration are brought into this unity, partly because the French themselves require the discipline to do hard work; the struggle against youth and the education system represents the opportunity for police repression when young people are not so much required in the workforce. The professionals will be asked to do these policing functions. MF predicted long ago that all the structures of confinement would be reinforced. Localised counter responses and skirmishes have been one response, without totalising them — to do so would involve new forms of representative centralism and hierarchy. Instead we need 'lateral affiliations', networks and popular bases, although this is difficult. The old representative channels of the CP or the unions no longer describe the reality of politics — that is 'what actually happens' in factories, schools, barracks, prisons. Unconventional forms of information is spread by these actions, not the type that is found in newspapers.

MF We still ignore the problem of power. We didn't understand exploitation until the 19th century. Marx and Freud probably cannot produce a full understanding. Traditional theories of government and its mechanisms no longer exhaust the field where power is exercised. Thus power remains an enigma — who exercises it and in which sphere? We know who exploits and how funds are reinvested, but power is different. It is not just in the hands of those who govern. We still don't have a full understanding of domination or governing. Power also has its limits depending on the relays through which it operates and how it influences hierarchies and other forms of control and surveillance. Power exists by being exercised. No one has an official right to it and yet it always favours a particular direction and divides people. It might be easier to see who lacks power. Books like Capitalism and Schizophrenia, as well as Nietzsche, have been important and go a long way to solve the problem — power exists in particular sources, often tiny ones. Pointing out these sources is a part of the struggle, but not because they were not known about before. Instead it is a matter of forcing 'the institutionalized networks of information' to listen, accuse, find targets. This is what happens when prison inmates or prison doctors sees the power to speak about prison conditions. This is a discourse opposed to the secretive. It might turn out to have unexpected developments, uncovering all the misunderstandings that relate to things that might be repressed or unsaid. Unearthing a secret is even more difficult than unearthing the unconscious! Writing has been seen as dealing with repression and being subversive, but there are actually a number of operations involved.

GD I agree power looks more diffuse. Marx's aim, to define the problem in terms of the interests of social classes,  then led to the question about how people whose interests were not being served might support the existing system. Perhaps interest is not the only issue. Other 'investments of desire'might be involved and these will be more 'profound and diffuse'. We never desire against our interests, rather interest follows desire. It might also be perfectly true that the masses actually wanted a fascist regime, as Reich suggested. Since all power is moulded and distributed by desire, there is no difference between power operated by small and large actors. Particular kinds of desire in social groups might explain the reformism of political parties unions — they can be 'absolutely reactionary on the level of desire'.

MF. Relations between desire power and interests are complex. It's not always possible for those with vested interests to wield power. Those who do wield power do not necessarily have particular interests. Any desire for power involves a relation between power and interest. Sometimes the masses might indeed desire that particular people assume power who then act against their interests. The whole connections have received little attention. By examining current struggles and the various local and discontinuous theories of them, it might help future discoveries about power.

GD. 'The present revolutionary movement' [fantasy] has multiple centres, but this can help to oppose total lies to power, as in Vietnam. But should the networks and transversal links be limited to one country?

MF. There is 'geographical discontinuity'. Struggles against exploitation are led by the proletariat, but they also defined targets and methods. If we allow ourselves with the proletariat we have to accept these, in a form of 'total identification'. But if the fight is against power then all those who have power exercised against them can begin their own struggles on their own to reins with their own interests and objectives. They will be natural allies of the proletariat, since power is exercised as it is 'in order to maintain capitalist exploitation'. So local struggles can genuinely serve the proletariat [the old consolation] — women, prisoners, soldiers hospital patients and homosexuals do this sort of struggle. If they are radical and non-reformist, they will be involved in the revolutionary movements and linked to the overall revolutionary movement of the proletariat — they fight against the same 'controls and constraints which serve the same system of power'. There is no need to offer some theoretical totalisation as truth.

GD. Since we are faced with a diffuse system of power, 'the most insignificant demand' can lead to the desire to destroy the whole thing. Thus [very conveniently] 'every revolutionary attack or defence, however partial, is linked in this way to the workers struggle'.

back to Deleuze page