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Cultural Studies Series: What is Power?

What is Power?

In my previous article that fell under cultural studies I introduced the discipline of cultural studies itself, it’s history, uses, some terminology, and overall academic/social objective. To view my introductory essay on cultural studies, click here. To preface that essay I composed a short paragraph on power (what will be focused on in this article) and it’s meaning/utilization in cultural studies, 

see here,

What is Power? In cultural studies, power can be defined as the extent to which an individual can influence the actions, beliefs, or behaviors of others. Power can be most easily understood as a factor that arises out of the interdependence between two or more agents and the environment. The subject of power is not seen as one dimensionally good or bad in the realm of cultural studies, and its observable functions, purposeful uses, and ends are debated within and outside the realm of the social sciences. 

To extrapolate a bit on this paragraph I will go over different definitions of power, in order to make the abstraction as flexible and adaptable as need be. 

The Different Definitions of Power

If you look up power on wikipedia you might be surprised to find how many different usages of the word exist. Just within the stem fields we have the power function, power of a point, statistical power, optical power. In the social sciences, which are of more direct concern here, we have economic power, state power (international relations), and finally a broader operationalisation of power which is used primarily in the social sciences or political discourse (which is what we’re most immediately interested in). 

Although we are only going to focus on a subset of definitions and conceptualizations of power, providing broader understanding of the words we use may allow for linguistic, conceptual, and even temperamental flexibility. I’ve personally seen this come in handy, especially in university, when you are trying to relate to matters outside of your domain of expertise. I encourage you to exercise your own due diligence and widely examine theories, thoughts, and experiences beyond my own, and come to your own unique point of view. 

Why is Power so Important?

A reason for it’s importance is because one of the fundamental aims of cultural studies is to investigate cultural practices and their relationship to power (or culture in light of power). According to the famous French academic Paul-Michel Foucault (1926-1984) power can be defined as one agent’s ability to make others obedient, on whatever grounds, in the context of any social relationship

Power’s Entanglement with Knowledge

In cultural studies, power’s importance is further justified by it’s entanglement with knowledge, another term up for conceptual contestation. To clarify – another aim of cultural studies is it’s uncompromising intent to clarify and harmonize “divisions of knowledge”  that are assumed to be grounded in nature. (Cultural studies, Wikipedia). These assumptions in knowledge/understanding can fit under the umbrella of anything that is non-extendable, metaphysical, or purely theoretical. 

Foucault’s Power/Knowledge Conception and the Regime of Truth

For Foucault, there exists an omnipresent relationship between power and knowledge; the interaction between the two constructs the concept of truth. Within Foucault’s framework this is theoretically achievable because he defines knowledge as a concept with a fettered temporal dimension, or to put it more simply, knowledge changes with the passing of time. Foucault describes knowledge as a source of power, which in turn allows an agent/society to steer discourse into a favored or presumably required direction; he calls this the regime of truth.

Daniale Lorenzini, a published writer on Le Foucaldien, a peer reviewed journal that carries out research on Foucault, conducted an overview of Foucault’s works, and in particular, his lectures at the Collège de France and maps out Foucault’s uses of the regime of truth.

Lorenzini recapitulates the term regime of truth as a linkage between the political concept regime and truth; the phrase regime of truth comprises divisions of knowledge, skills, or scientific grasps that by implication allow for an agent to punish another. In a 1976 lecture Focault clarifies the concept as a “power of separation between truth and error”. (Foucault 1975-76, p. 145; 164). If you sit in this relative position of power, you may have more social leeway in describing when others do something right (in light of truth), or err. 

The definition of a political regime is as follows, “In politics, a regime is the form of government or the set of rules, cultural or social norms, etc. that regulate the operation of a government or institution and its interactions with society”  (Foucault 1975, p. 30; 23)

Foucault describes the regime of truth, and truth more broadly as something that is “is produced by virtue of multiple constraints [a]nd it induces regulated effects of power”

A Regime of Truth: Five Procedures & No Truth Beyond Power

Similar to a political regime, Foucault described five ways in which a regime of truth is a set of procedures that allow for systematically produced, regulated, distributed, circulated sets of statements or oblique assertions. This is a stark contrast to the enduring philosophical view that truth is something that is discovered someplace beyond power, or at the very least has limited quantities of it. For example, Some of the most famous western philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are all intellectual patrons of correspondence theories of truth. Correspondence theories stress the belief that true ideas, or declarations correspond to tangible objects, happenings, or to put it simply, external reality.  

Truth, to Foucault, and unlike the venerated western philosophers, is a regime that is uniquely manufactured in every preexisting, and existing society. Here are the five ways in which Foucault describes truth as a set of procedures carried out by societies to maneuver power and knowledge. 

(1) “the types of discourse [society] harbours and causes to function as true”; (2) “the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true from false statements” and (3) “the way in which each is sanctioned”; (4) “the techniques and procedures which are valorised for obtaining truth”; (5) “the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Foucault 1976, p. 112; 13).

These mechanisms, in turn, license societies with the ability to hold truth captive, but nevertheless outwardly spirited and divine. Foucault summarizes this sentiment well, saying in an interview that a regime of truth, and its procedures are tied “by a circular relation to systems of power which produce it and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which redirect it” (Foucault 1976, pp. 113-114; 14).

A New Politics of Truth: Scientific Discourse, Discourse itself & Scientific Realism

For Foucault the only way to solve this problem is by instituting a new politics of truth that is centered around scientific discourse, although this does not admit Foucault as a scientific realist. This is because discourse itself  is confounded and an item of skepticism for Foucault. Karl Marx, for example, believed that illegitimate authority is at fault for obscuring true or more or less just scientific discourse and true observation. In Marx’s view the removal of oppressors (or the bourgeoisie class) would allow the external world to reveal itself for what it is, liberated from brute legislation and pathological leadership. Meanwhile Foucault considers scientific discourse in itself as a system of power relations wrestling to produce divisions of knowledge within a society. This is therefore an opposition to marxist and scientific realists alike that reckon that deodorized scientific discourse is enough or that correct science is simply direct observation of the external world, when it is in fact imbued with the historical prejudices, and incidental discourses of it’s partakers.

Stay tuned for my next article where I will survey some of Foucault’s anthropological work that function as cornerstones for his views on discourse itself, and its relation to power/knowledge and truth; We will also examine the ideas of other theorists before and after Foucault for comparative study.


Wikipedia contributors. (2021, June 6). Power (social and political). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Power_(social_and_political)&oldid=1027220926

What is a “Regime of Truth”? (2013). (2013, October 30). https://michel-foucault.com/2013/10/31/what-is-a-regime-of-truth-2013/

Lorenzini, D. (2015). What is a “regime of truth”? Le Foucaldien, 1(1), 1.

Wikipedia contributors. (2020, December 31). Regimes of truth. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Regimes_of_truth&oldid=997325289

Wikipedia contributors. (2020, November 28). Extension (metaphysics). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Extension_(metaphysics)&oldid=991138260

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, June 6). Power (social and political). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Power_(social_and_political)&oldid=1027220926

Foucault’s Elephant. (n.d.). Retrieved June 25, 2021, from https://philosophynow.org/issues/127/Foucaults_Elephant

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, June 21). Knowledge. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Knowledge&oldid=1029760815

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, June 6). Truth. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Truth&oldid=1027143440

Le foucaldien. (n.d.). Retrieved June 25, 2021, from https://foucaldien.net/
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, June 12). Scientific realism. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Scientific_realism&oldid=1028139701

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