Session Two: Power and the Self

For an introduction to the Culture, Power and Politics seminar, please go to the ‘About’ page.

In this session we looked at some of the key ideas of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault.

The recording of the session is HERE

and the powerpoint slides are HERE

Althusser was a huge influence on people like Stuart Hall, was a bit older than Foucault and always remained loyal to the Communist Party. His understanding of the ways in which ideology works at the level of the singular person, and their experience of selfhood and their place in the world, remain extremely useful tool for thinking about the power of capitalism today.

Do you know who the single most cited figure in the humanities in English has been every year for about the past decade? It’s Michel Foucault (who died, sadly, young, in 1984).

Foucault’s emphasis on the multi-dimensional nature of power has changed the way we think about all kinds of issues, from the nature of sexuality to the function of government. He has been a key source for queer and postcolonial theory and an inspiration for many studies of power working at the level of specific institutions, localities and bodies. He invites us to think about the way that everything from voting to cycling to watching TV to going to church is a practice by which we make ourselves and negotiate the power relationships we encounter, and about the ways in whicn all of these forces act upon us at the same time.

His work has often been seen (wrongly) as entirely hostile to the Marxist tradition while taking inspiration from the radical movements of the 60s and 70s, and was certainly always informed by his involvement with struggles for prison reform, by his ambivalent relationship to the politics of gay liberation, and by his constant frustration with the conservatism of the orthodox French Left.

His reputation had already been cemented as one of the great thinkers of the 20th century even before the publication of his lecture series from the late 70s, which were only published about 10 years ago. But the publication of those lectures has proved astonishingly important, because the most widely read volume of them shows that Foucault was undertaking, around 1977-78, the first critical genealogy of neoliberalism to have been made by any serious scholar, even thought it took 30 years for that work to be published.

If you want to do some reading  then have a look at the introduction to this book on Foucault and see how much you can get through of this classic essay of Althusser’s.